For the past day and a half, the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet & Society hosted a public meeting of the Internet Safety Technical Task Force. Discussions focused mostly on what technical solutions exist for addressing the perceived lack of online safety on social networking websites. But overall there’s still a need to connect the most important dot—do proposed solutions actually make children safer?
Being at Harvard Law School I was reminded of the movie the Paper Chase, where Professor Charles Kingsfield wielded the Socratic Method to better train his students for the rigor of law practice. In this spirit, I think there are three main questions that the task force must fully address when it issues its report later this year:
1. What are the Internet safety problems? This should be a broad inquiry into all the safety-related issues (harassment, bullying, inappropriate content and contact, etc.) and not just limited to social networking websites. Also, there should be an attempt to define those problems that are unique to the Internet and others where root causes are offline problems.
2. What are the possible technical solutions to these problems? It’s important to recognize that some of the problems will NOT primarily be technology fixes (such as education in school classrooms) and even age verification would rely on offline information.
3. Do the solutions offered in #2 to the problems in #1 actually do anything to make children safer? It’s not whether the technology works that’s the salient inquiry. It’s whether the technology works to make children safer.
There were 16 or so companies that presented technology solutions based on age verification, identity verification, filtering/auditing, text analysis, and certificates/authentication tools. Some were better than others, and while most addressed questions one and two above, they were silent about number three.