There was a time when any good Internet venture could be managed with some creativity, good editorial, financial know-how, and solid server maintenance. That was before massively popular social networking sites like MySpace , Facebook (Nasdaq: FB), YouTube Inc. , and the World of Warcraft came on the scene.
While there are many definitions of Web 2.0, mine is more simple than most. Before Web 2.0 technologies, sites communicated with the user. CNN, AOL, MSN, Yahoo, and others would post content and users would view it. Perhaps users would post a comment or two, or send an email, but it was essentially one-way site to user.
Web 2.0 bypasses the site, except as a conduit for user-generated content and direction. Instead of site-to-user (or user-to-world) content, it is user-to-user content. Web 2.0 technologies allow users to share thoughts, video, images, audio, and anything else -- real or imagined, true or false, good or bad.
In February 2005, I received a call from a friend whose 13-year-old niece had her full name, address, telephone number, school, and photo posted on MySpace.com. The entire family was upset and worried. I offered to visit his niece’s school and speak to the students about cybersafety, and decided to reach out to MySpace and deliver a well-deserved lecture.
It took me a few hours to dig up a phone number for MySpace’s corporate office. I called and asked for their general counsel’s line. I was routed to his voicemail. I left a hateful message, telling him who I was, that I ran WiredSafety.org , one of the largest and oldest cybersafety help groups, and that we were watching them closely. I also dropped a bombshell. “By the way, you are out of compliance with COPPA.” I never expected a return call.
When the general counsel called me back, I was shocked. “Parry, I know who you are and we need your help. We don’t want kids on our site. We’re designed for independent musicians between the ages of 18 and 34, not kids. It’s like herding cats! Make them go away!” (Or, at least, that’s the way I remember it.)
I told him I wasn’t calling in cyberlawyer and risk management consultant mode. I was representing WiredSafety.org, which helps people, not businesses. He asked if we would point out things on MySpace that needed to be changed. If we did, he explained, millions of people would be safer in one fell swoop.
It was a novel approach, but it only had potential as long as I was willing to share my expertise for free, through the charity. But the carrot was keeping millions of people safer. I bit. Nevertheless, I needed to sell it to the volunteers acting as WiredSafety.org’s key executives. Getting past the “sharing personal information online is dangerous” point was a real challenge, but it was essential if we were going to influence the creation of safer networks.
MySpace grew 1000 percent from 6 million users to 60 million within months. We were overwhelmed with requests for help. To their credit, MySpace reacted quickly when we made suggestions. They also fixed the COPPA problem within minutes. We helped institute privacy settings and better abuse reporting, and they adopted my pro-law-enforcement Investigator’s Guide and procedures.
Other sites approached us, such as Facebook, Bebo, Piczo, and Xanga, and additional sites reach out daily. Even VCs and investors call us. Everyone wants their network be the poster child for safer networking.
Why did these and other leading sites turn to a cybersafety group to help them handle safety issues? It is because no company, regardless of how well-staffed and trained, is ready for what users of all ages will throw at them -- cyberstalking and harassment, ID theft, and underaged kids posing in the nude, to name a few problems.
Real or perceived anonymity by millions of unauthenticated users and lack of accountability is a serious risk management problem for sites. So, we’ve taken everything we learned about protecting kids and adults online, and merged that with old-fashioned risk-management, compliance, and privacy consulting and coaching. Early next year, with the first Web 2.0-support center, The WiredTrust will open its doors to teach companies how to herd cats, kids, and wayward adults. It will also allow networks to outsource moderation and abuse-management to have it done for them. Luckily for me, safety is now more than good business -- it’s essential to staying in business. I knew if we hung in there long enough, things would come around.
— Parry Aftab, Cyberlawyer, privacy and security expert, and Executive Director, WiredSafety.org (the world’s largest and oldest cybersafety and help group)