As we mark the 20th Safer Internet Day, it is startling to see how far we’ve come in only two decades, instructive to reflect on our experiences in that relatively brief time, and sobering to contemplate the challenges that lie ahead.
One of the key lessons we’ve learned is that whatever problems or solutions technology may offer, all of us can play a role in making life online safer.
That’s why, this week of all weeks, we’re urging everyone to Connect. Reflect. Protect.
The first two phases of the internet brought unprecedented changes to our lives, many of them positive, others less so.
Web 3.0, along with immersive technologies that blend virtual and actual worlds, promises to be just as transformative. Naturally, there will be untold benefits – and new risks. It is crucial we learn lessons of the past to stop those dangers becoming real-world harms.
The safety of simpler times
Like many who were there at the start, I remember the gurgle, crackle and beep of dial-up internet with some fondness – that nostalgic symphony of the “handshake” connecting your modem to the modem of your ISP. The accompanying frustration is a faint memory.
If you long for that melody, by the way, it lives on at the Museum of Endangered Sounds. You’re welcome.
This Web 1.0 was a simple and static world; a read-only version where interaction levels were close to zero. It was the dawn of the mainstream Internet. Think Netscape’s Mosaic browser, basic email, and web pages with under construction signs against a starry night background. And all from your desktop.
There was breathless discussion of broadband – and internet speeds of 6Mbps – but also real concerns about a digital and regional divide in Australia. Companies were just starting to double down on security and privacy. Safety, however, remained something of an afterthought.
Social media companies like Facebook and Twitter didn’t exist, so we had no idea about the range of possibilities and perils online interactivity would mean for society and online discourse – the good, the bad and the ugly.
An upgrade that brought some downsides
The progression to Web 2.0 introduced us to the interactive and social web we enjoy today – platforms, apps and services where we mingle with others via Wi-Fi on mobile devices we can fit into our pockets or attach to our wrists.
Web 2.0 changed everything. How we work, learn, love and live.
This iteration of the internet is largely centralised, with control over data and access. A concentration of internet wealth and power in some of the world's biggest companies – Amazon, Apple, Google, Meta and Microsoft – grew in parallel. The way Web 2.0 enables us to interact with each other at scale and in real time heightened online risks.
And this is where we find ourselves in 2023: abuse, post pandemic, is still on the rise, polarisation is deeper and more widespread, binary positioning and uncivil public discourse is more commonplace.
eSafety and others have been working to rein in the negativity and the harm and to educate Australians about their role in keeping themselves and their families safer online. Other countries are establishing similar regulators.
We have an opportunity to learn the lessons of Web 2.0 and to shape the next 20 years as rapid changes in technology continue apace.
It took about 10 years to transition from the original internet to Web 2.0 and it may take as long to reshape it again into Web 3.0 – the next iteration that will likely be even more revolutionary than its predecessor.
According to many technologists and futurists, the vision is a more decentralised and open internet that doesn't rely on a central server or authority. Instead, it would rely on peer-to-peer interactions between users and applications that run on their own public blockchain networks.
When combined with developments in machine learning and artificial intelligence, Web 3.0 could enable more adaptive applications. It changes how websites are made and also how people will interact with them.
Where will Web 3.0 take us?
Predicting the future is impossible but we know enough about the appeal of connected devices, the vagaries of human nature, and the importance of profits to all businesses to realise the future of online safety will remain a challenge. This is a challenge for governments, tech companies, and all of us.
Web 3.0 has the potential to reshape today’s model of the internet in favour of broader ownership of online services. Developments such as community-based moderation could be used to give people a role in decision making. In short, more power to users.
The Web 3.0 proponents suggest a philosophical and technological shift that involves disintermediation in online interaction between users. The proponents claim that this reduced role for intermediaries will provide better security and privacy for users, utilising distributed systems like blockchains.
To some this may sound great – and it’s certainly a long way from Web 1.0 – but I’d like to caution some of this techno-utopian idealism.
A future even less certain
To be socially responsible, decentralised services must be designed that way, incorporating measures to protect safety, as well as building in privacy and security.
Based on our experience of the last 20 years, we should be asking hard questions now about how these services will protect users from harmful content and conduct online.
eSafety is working to make sure safety considerations feature in discussions about decentralised technology, so those working on it can assess the safety risks, inform users about those risks, and take reasonable steps to reduce or eliminate them through Safety by Design.
Also, since stronger networks are a requisite for Web 3.0, many older and less sophisticated devices may not be able to ensure accessibility. We’ll need upgraded devices with a faster processing unit and other superior specifications. And Web 3.0 might be difficult for novice users with lower digital literacy skills to comprehend, navigate and operate.
The advance of technology
Some companies are starting to venture into an immersive Web 3.0 using a collection of technologies that will revolutionise how we interact with the internet. These include virtual reality, augmented reality, artificial intelligence, machine learning, blockchain and more powerful 5G and 6G wireless communication networks.
For example, companies are working to build a metaverse which merges the physical and virtual worlds.
Some have dubbed this version the “walk-in internet”. Rather than scrolling through websites and apps, we could be strolling through a three-dimensional world where we can work, shop, learn and play in ways that merge physical and virtual realities.
While it’s exciting to contemplate the promise of immersive technologies, it’s important to recognise existing and emerging harms. The immersive nature and advanced technologies of the metaverse could exacerbate some of the problems we face today with Web 2.0.
And we’ll have to deal with their potential impacts at the intersection of safety, freedom of expression, and privacy.
This is a world where sexual assault could happen in dark online spaces – and feel devastatingly real.
Supporters for this impending paradigm shift to the metaverse include those who stand to gain most by it but it's still not clear how they will prevent and remediate harm in these brave new worlds.
Well, we at eSafety see the enhanced risks of the metaverse as an issue we need to deal with now.
Safer Internet Day
Success will take a whole of community response, requiring buy-in not just from industry but also from governments, regulators, educators, experts, parents and the internet users themselves.
Which brings me to the anniversary we are celebrating this week – 20 years of Safer Internet Day. This is the one day every year the world comes together to think about how we can create a better, safer internet.
This year, we’re asking every Australian to honour the timely themes of Connect. Reflect. Protect.
- Connect safely by keeping apps and devices secure. Regularly review your privacy settings and those of your children.
- Reflect on how your actions may affect others or jeopardise your own safety
- Protect yourself and loved ones by visiting esafety.gov.au for advice and support, or to report serious online abuse.
Web 3.0 is ours to help shape, starting today.