Building a culture of online safety is much more than a tick box exercise

2020 has seen the internet become an “essential utility,” enabling us to work, learn and socialise during lockdown, and beyond. Yet, we have also seen the fall out of this intensified use of the internet — making apparent that online roads were not built for safety, but rather for scale and speed.  As these online harms manifest relatively consistently across the globe, the need for Safety by Design has never been clearer. 

As the eSafety Commissioner, I see the devastating impact that online harms can have on victims every day.

These harms are real – as our recent research published at the start of August again revealed – with more than two thirds of Australians having had a negative experience online. The most at-risk groups, including Indigenous Australians, those identifying as LGBTQI+, and those living with a disability are often the biggest targets. So, it is critical that we find new ways to curtail the growth of online harms and provide room for the next generation of safety innovation.

I’m acutely aware of what transpires on the other side — on the inside of these companies, but behind the walled gardens — having spent more than two decades at Microsoft, Twitter and Adobe. Those inside also know too well that there is an imperative for renewed emphasis on online safety, but this direction must extend from the top down. 

Fundamentally, a commitment to safety is a leadership issue; corporate leaders ultimately determine whether safety is an imperative – or an afterthought.  Company leaders either see safety as a business enabler and differentiator, as a foundation stone for trust and as a catalyst for success, or they view safety as an impediment and retrospective fix. 

For user safety to become a meaningful company priority, it cannot be a tick box exercise. Safety must be embedded into the culture, values, and investments of the company — and yes, tech employees need to be tasked and rewarded for achieving measurable safety goals. To flourish, user safety must be nurtured both vertically and horizontally, across individuals and teams — from leadership, to product owners and product developers and across the range of harm types.

There is a responsibility to employ user safety throughout the product cycle and even through product and platform “refreshes.”

We can shift the technology gospel from, “moving fast and breaking things” or, “growth at all costs,” to one that strives for innovation whilst making user dignity and safety a priority. These imperatives are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Safety by Design provides an opportunity and the pathway now to change this ethos and make inclusive and ethical design thinking a standard practice.  This is why we are excited to announce the next milestones in eSafety’s Safety by Design initiative.

The next phase of Safety by Design is all about helping companies implement the principles in ways that make sense for the sector, and in line with their own identified risks. We have developed a robust framework of resources and guidance materials with industry for industry – to help them on this Safety by Design journey.  This included extensive consultation with over 50 organisations across industry, safety advocates, NGOs, governments and multi-lateral organisations – ensuring that a holistic approach to end user safety is considered and achieved. 

We are developing two dynamic and interactive Safety by Design self-assessment tools — one dedicated to early stage technology companies, and one tailored for more established companies —understanding that size and structure are touchpoints that impact on a company’s ability to fully integrate Safety by Design. See our new web pages on Safety by Design for more information.

Structure and leadership, Internal policies, processes and expectations of employees, Moderation, escalation and enforcement practices, End user impact assessment, Transparency and accountability

The self-assessment tool for established companies is provided across five interactive and dynamic modules.  

These emphasise consideration of:

  • Company structure and leadership
  • Internal policies, procedures, and expectations of employees 
  • Moderation practices 
  • End user impacts 
  • Transparency and accountability for customers. 

Companies already road testing our beta tool have provided incredibly positive feedback, with some indicating it had been used as an effective internal audit tool and a “safety impact assessment” for others. The additional learning opportunities, points of clarification and best practice interspersed throughout the tool act as real points of differentiation. The tailored and targeted report that is produced at the end of each module, acts as both a ‘safety health check’ and a learning resource that can be drawn upon and used to help make refinements or innovations in the future. 

We understand that start-ups will have very different needs, requiring a lighter touch approach. Our self-assessment tool for emerging companies is focused on generating awareness of online safety risks and embedding Safety by Design into the values and ethos of the company from the outset. This foundations-up approach ensures that early stage technology companies and their founders are putting safety and ethical considerations at the heart of their design processes. 

We’re excited to provide a preview of the next phase of our Safety by Design initiative while our full featured interactive tool is being built.  We understand that online safety is not an end point, so we encourage companies to take a peak and be part of this journey to minimise online harms. We welcome and look forward to industry feedback, as we maintain regulation and education alone won’t lead us to the internet we want and deserve. This will take a concerted, global industry effort to re-tool platforms to minimise the threat surface by putting safety considerations at the core of their services.