Investing in a safer internet

This is the text of an opinion article that appeared online at The Australian on Friday 31 July

This week, four tech titans – Google, Apple, Amazon and Facebook – find themselves in the virtual hot-seat as they testify before the U.S.  House Commerce Committee about their massive collective market power. 

One thing these four behemoths have in common is that Silicon Valley venture capitalists backed their start-ups with significant seed-funding over the last quarter of the 20th century Those were heady days indeed, with hundreds of companies going public and with investors reaping rewards from the Internet Gold Rush.

A couple of decades later, if you add Microsoft, we are talking about a global technology oligopoly with combined annual earnings that would place it inside the G20. We can’t turn back time, but we have to wonder: what if governments had put the brakes on the successive acquisitions of these companies, to better manage their unbridled growth?  Moreover, what if the VC cowboys of the 1990s had not only required significant monetary returns for their seed funding, but also significant social returns?

That horse has bolted, but there are new tech thoroughbreds lining up at the barriers, and seeking investor support, every day.  This represents important opportunities now to ensure technology is harnessed for good.

There is no question the internet has brought immense benefits to the way we socialise, play and work – including in financial markets, where the productivity gains have continued to be  prodigious. But along with these economic benefits have come new forms of harm. As the world’s first dedicated online safety regulator, eSafety sees all too much of the dark side of the astonishing rise of the internet, including many forms of abuse and bullying, as well as online sexual exploitation of children and the spread of abhorrent violent material.

What strikes me most – after three years heading eSafety, and 25 years before that in the tech industry – is how preventable many of these harms would be, if only online platforms and services were safe to use at the point of release, and did not inadvertently harm their users.

This is why we have been championing “safety by design,” a policy initiative that puts responsibility for user-safety back onto technology companies themselves. Just as auto manufacturers install seatbelts and air bags into cars, I believe that technology companies should be embedding safety protections into their design, development and deployment processes.

Just as the VC pioneers of the late 20th century spurred on the growth of the big tech behemoths, the investment and financial sector has an important role to play here today. As funders of new technology ventures, and also as institutions that deploy technology for their own banking and financial services, the sector could serve as an important lever in ensuring that early-stage technology companies and their founders are putting safety and ethical considerations at the heart of their design processes.

In the early stages of a new online platform or product, members of the investment and venture capital community are sometimes the “grown-ups in the room” and stand the best chance of quelling, or at least moderating, an outbreak of irrational exuberance.

Bolting on retroactive safety fixes after the reputational, revenue or regulatory risks manifest themselves has proven time and again to be more costly and complex than engineering out potential misuse at the outset.

Therefore, clear evidence that a potential start-up has incorporated safety into its design should be the first principle for responsible technology investment followed by VC firms, financial institutions, and institutional investors such as superannuation funds. Just a few of the questions that should be asked:

  • Does the product provide users with the right tools and features to allow them to manage their safety?
  • Does it have discoverable and intuitive mechanisms for the reporting of harm?
  • Are their moderation practices already in place to manage behaviour on the platform or service?
  • Is there a team, or responsible individual, with safety defined as a key part of their role?

Safety by design provides a clear pathway and easy set of standards to help support the sector’s responsible investment and business decisions. At eSafety we are developing a framework of resources, including a set of dynamic and interactive assessment tools for early-stage technology companies, and mid- to top- tier companies. This includes a comprehensive investment toolkit for funders of these companies.

We want to make it as easy as possible for companies to adopt and implement safety by design, and for potential investors to have visibility on whether they are doing so.

These are incredible technologies that transform the way we live. Those who take on the initial risk of investing in them have a key role to play in ensuring they make our lives better, rather than exposing us and our children to toxicity and harm.