The tech industry’s 'seatbelt moment' is fast approaching

I recently provided the keynote for the G7’s Safety Tech Summit, looking at how we can improve the overall digital ecosystem through global systemic changes, and how Safety by Design can intersect with the burgeoning safety tech industry. Below is an overview of my speech.

It’s hard to believe that it was more than 50 years ago that a young American lawyer named Ralph Nader began questioning car makers’ accountability for traffic fatalities.

His ideas culminated in a book called 'Unsafe at Any Speed' – and this led to a new era of automobile regulation, still guided today by international standards.

Predictably, the auto industry vehemently pushed back.  They did not want to embed seatbelts or further invest in safety. But once these features were made compulsory, the car fatality death toll rapidly diminished - saving untold numbers of lives.  

There are certainly a number of corollaries here with the current state of technology regulation. And one thing is for certain, the online world as we know it was not built for safety – it was built for speed.

I believe we are fast approaching big tech’s 'seatbelt moment' – and momentum is growing globally for user safety to become a core design consideration – that virtual seatbelts should be deployed online to protect our children from accessing the darkest recesses of the web.

Safety by design – eSafety’s approach

We have been championing the Safety by Design initiative since 2018. Safety by Design encourages technology companies to anticipate, detect and eliminate online risks as the most effective way to make our digital environments safer and more inclusive, especially for those most vulnerable.

Together, we want to prove that building safety in rather than bolting it on is not only better for people, but also better for business.  

We wanted to bring the tech sector along on this journey – so that we were genuinely doing this with them rather than to them – as this represents a huge cultural shift in terms of how online services are conceptualised, designed and ultimately deployed.

eSafety worked with industry, service providers, parents, carers, and young people to create resources that make the Safety by Design principles actionable and effective. We released two interactive assessment tools: one for early-stage technology companies (Start-up edition) and one for mid-tier or enterprise companies (Enterprise edition).

Our goal is to more deeply embed safety into the culture, ethos and operations of the business – from the product conception through to implementation.  We believe that this will engender a culture of innovation, will motivate tech workers who want to create technology for good, and pre-empt damaging 'tech wreck' moments.

Intersection of safety tech and safety by design

Safety by design is about both re-engineering the online world we have now, and also surfacing the need for further innovations in safety tech to provide over the top protections. 

We do need to fix the fundamentals first, but while we’re doing that, there is a huge market for safety tech providers to step in an provide more granular parental controls than are incorporated in most operating systems; or robust tools to halt online harassment; or an outsourced content moderation functionality or to offer trust and safety as a service.

Safety tech fits squarely into the domain of user empowerment and autonomy – and this burgeoning industry is already demonstrating the specialisation and safety competencies needed to supplement native controls.

The promise and the perils of safety tech

As a tech-enthusiast, the promise of safety tech is something I can get behind. However, supporting this burgeoning industry alone cannot solve our online problems. We really need to fix the safety foundations of the internet infrastructure and the services we are using today through Safety by Design. If we don’t, safety tech will serve more as a band-aid – rather than as the tourniquet we need to stem the tide of online toxicity. These efforts are complementary rather than mutually exclusive.

Our hope is that by embedding a 'safety lens' into current and future companies we will not only ensure that we bolster and drive-up standards of safety within companies themselves, but that this will also act as a catalyst to building a thriving and responsible technology ecosystem.

If the major companies start to lift their safety standards and practices, it is likely that we’ll see more consolidation of the safety tech sector. And if the major platforms continue to acquire these safety tech ventures as we have seen recently with Discord and Sentropy or with Microsoft and Two Hat, we could end up seeing a broader disintermediation of the safety tech sector, very much as we saw in the early 2000s with independent anti-virus and anti-malware vendors.

However, I think that this group of safety tech pioneers, who will be able to see these paradigm shifts coming, will adapt and continue to innovate on behalf of consumers to continue building a diverse and thriving safety tech sector.

Working together globally

Whether it’s Safety by Design, or safety tech, we all need to find ways to talk about how we improve the overall ecosystem through global systemic changes.  

We need to do this together and to actively shape the Web 3.0 world of the future. We do not want the weaponization of deepfakes, the exploitation of algorithms, or a totally decentralised internet – without the ability to remediate harm – shaping user solutions.

To create the Internet we all want - and deserve - we need to ensure that consumers all over the globe have their own seatbelt moment – a time when we just might take for granted that safety protections are built into our online services – just as they are our cars.