February 9, 2021 marks the 15th celebration of the international Safer Internet Day. This year’s theme “Together for a better internet” is more important than ever before. 2020 was the year that disrupted and transformed the way businesses, citizens, kids interact with the Internet. Although I strongly believe that we should work every day towards a safer and better internet, let us make this day a call to all stakeholders “to join together to make the internet a safer and better place for all, and especially for children and young people.”
I like to envision a safer and better internet as a place where two key traits are present: respect towards our data privacy and better online behavior. Allow me to elaborate a bit on both.
Respect data privacy
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought large-scale transformations in the digital environment, which introduce both opportunities and risks. On the positive side, digital technologies have emerged as an excellent medium to enable children and young people like you to search for information, communicate, socialize, learn and play. The level of interaction with technology and how virtual settings augment real life provide opportunities that are not otherwise possible.
However, as you interact with digital platforms and environments, you generate millions of data points – digital footprints – which characterize who you are. These are your personal data and can be used to identify you and your wills and interests. The problem is when this data is not used in an ethical and sensible manner.
Nefarious data brokers and tech companies collect, analyze and process this data in a way that some may consider both ethically, and legally questionable. We certainly have to understand that the motive of business is profit, and, as Marc Goodman noted in his book “Future Crimes”, we are no longer the customers. We have been transformed into a product. Our data are being used not only to provide personalized advertising, but in some less honorable cases, to change our behavior.
In the defense of these companies, some personalized ads are quite convenient – offering the ability to locate the next great video game to buy or the latest trends in fashion – without any effort. But there is another side to this as well.
If you add to the mix the well-intentioned, yet accidentally biased algorithms, the result can be sobering, sometimes promoting social topics that can marginalize and isolate people.
Let’s take a closer look at our online behavior. During the pandemic, many students were forced to switch from real life classrooms to online ones. The hours spent online have increased dramatically because, apart from the remote classes, we were forced to socialize online, using instant messaging apps and platforms to communicate with your classmates and friends. Our digital social life has shifted into overdrive.
However, this is exposing us to greater risks and threats. Hidden behind a perceived anonymity and propelled by what Dr. Mary Aiken has called “the online disinhibition effect”, our online behavior is transformed when we surf the internet.
As a result, cyberbullying incidents have increased globally. The asynchronous nature of online communication allows the bully to say what they want to say and then log out like nothing happened, without facing any consequences.
Another risk that we are facing is the spread of misinformation. Misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories have predominated the news in the last months, especially around public health and vaccines. While misinformation has always been a risk our lives, the pervasiveness of digital technology and the ease with which such “bad” information travels and reaches our screens has turned misinformation into a greater threat.
So, what can be done?
At this point you will ask me “And now what?” We all have our part to play for a better and safer internet.
You, your friends, all of us, should fight for a better internet. And we can start by reevaluating our online behavior. It is time we all became more kind, respectful and mindful of the information we share online.
We should also sit down with trusted adults and discuss with them your online presence. Teach them and be taught.
Those in the tech industry should provide the tools to better navigate the online world, online content suitable for children and young people, safe services online and efficient mechanisms if things go off rails.
Finally, governments and public administration should take the necessary steps to ensure digital literacy and online safety are embedded in all school curricula, promoting greater awareness of safer and better internet issues in the local, national and international political arena, in order to impact governance and legislation in a constructive way.
Let’s all work together to create the better internet that we want, and deserve.