Thursday, February 12, 2009

Can Self-Regulation Work for Social-Networking?

It's a tried and true pattern in politics. When a problem has been defined, and the government is about to get involved, the industry that's under scrutiny attempts to preempt government interference through self-regulation. Such has been the case in the newspaper, radio, television, and software industries, among numerous others.

Now, apparently, the online social-networking industry is stepping up its own efforts at self-regulation as well. In a prelude to what's just over the horizon here in the United States, Europeans have been clamoring for more stringent protections on their social-networking sites, and as a result, the European Union has signed on major private industry players like Google to support a document called "Safer Social Networking Principles".

So let's analyze this thing. Foremost, because this is still the stage just before direct government regulation, the Statement of Principles is voluntary in nature. Think of it as the EU's way of saying, "take steps on your own to meet these general guidelines, or else pretty soon we'll force you to do so anyway, and in whichever manner we deem fit".

The document defines the problem of safety on social networking sites by breaking down the threats into the following categories:

  • Illegal content - such as images of child abuse and unlawful hate speech.

  • Age-inappropriate content - such as pornography or sexual content, violence, or other content with adult themes which may be inappropriate for young people.

  • Contact - which relates to inappropriate contact from adults with a sexual interest in children or by young people who solicit other young people.

  • Conduct - which relates to how young people behave online.

In assigning stakeholders on this issue, the document suggests that there is a role to be played by parents and teachers, governments, law enforcement agencies, civil society, and, of course, users themselves. Only through a collaborative effort involving all of these stakeholders, with the social-networking sites taking a leading role, can a safe environment be achieved.

So far, so good. These all seem like a reasonable set of assumptions from which to start addressing the problem. But, to many of us active users, they also appear to be common sense. The devil lies in what types of solutions ought to be pursued.

Thus, the guiding principles the document proposes as solutions include the following...

  1. Raise awareness of safety education messages and acceptable use policies in a prominent, clear and age-appropriate manner.

  2. Work towards ensuring that services are age-appropriate for the intended audience - primarily through acquiring users' ages, and posting notifications about content accordingly.

  3. Empower users through tools and technology - mainly by making it easier for users to make their profiles "private" and non-searchable by default.

  4. Provide easy-to-use mechanisms to report conduct or content that violates the Terms of Service

  5. Respond to notifications of illegal content or conduct - and have processes in place to review and remove content immediately.

  6. Enable and encourage users to employ a safe approach to personal information and privacy - mostly by providing a range of privacy setting options, and making those options prominent and accessible at all times.

  7. Assess the means for reviewing illegal or prohibited content/conduct - or, in other words, remaining vigilant of new threats and dangers that constantly arise.

Again, much of this seems like common sense. For example, having a wide range of privacy setting options is atop the list of features that users of social-networking sites have been demanding for years. We all know that making those privacy options easier to use would better protect us. The problem is that the Facebooks and MySpaces of the world have viewed such protections as a threat to their business. Spokesmen for these companies have, for years, publicly issued statements about how such measures "reduce the functionality" of the website; that, somehow, more privacy options would be akin to building up virtual walls around each individual, and the social-networking sites believe that the user experience will suffer as a result, followed shortly by their business.

Hogwash! Most social-networking users see privacy protection as a feature that would enhance their experience, not harm it. The strategy of these websites has, for far too long, been simply to do the minimal amount necessary in order not to send people away in droves; basically, doing just enough to be able to say that they're making an effort.

But that's not going to cut it forever, particularly as the public clamors ever more loudly, and as governments scrutinize them more closely. Though not exactly inspiring or revelatory, the EU's "Safer Social Networking Principles" document, and future ones like it, may prove useful in instigating these websites into action.

Goodness knows, they haven't been doing much on their own.


At 10:53 AM, Blogger Luc(ifer) said...

Hey Rob, a bit late in the story I know, but it was actually the European Commission who started this initiative - not industry - in early '08. It was a follow on the work done by the Commission on minors and mobiles the year before.


At 11:58 PM, Blogger Robert J. Domanski said...

Excellent contribution, Lucifer, and I appreciate the link. It's also important to keep in mind that it is the private sector who actually drafts the wording of most pieces of legislation when they are first introduced.


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