This conversation of Amitabh Kumar with Dr. Ashish Das is in continuation with the FOSI Euro Forum, “Online Safety: A Transatlantic View”, held on 23 June, 2022 in London. In its opening session, Stephen Balkam (FOSI) said, “Our hope today is that we can learn from both the mistakes and the successes of the last twenty years, and balance the imperatives of safety and privacy.” Markham Erickson (Google) also opined, “The online world creates an amazing opportunity for education and learning but also poses challenges for parents, policymakers and companies.” And in the keynote address, Baroness Beeban Kidron OBE (Chair, 5Rights Foundation) emphasized, “Until kids’ safety is a non-negotiable priority, incremental wins for children will not be enough. And we will be having this same keynote with someone else's voice next year… Unless we keep reminding ourselves of the range of issues, we will never get to solutions. Children deserve a fair go at the online world. We have the power to do better.”
The present discussion is in the context of India including the global approach.
Key issues in creating safe online experiences for kids and families:
Parents still are unable to grasp the extent of impact smart devices have on the child. They still see it as a babysitter / harmless time killer, something to keep the child occupied. It's like the early days of Tobacco which was considered a harmless activity. Today if any one sees a child smoking they will intervene, they will not give excuses like ‘what should we do ?’, ‘they constantly ask for it’. Saying ‘No’ is pretty much half of parenting, that's exactly the approach we need towards technology.
There are studies about the negative effects of screen time, sadly the awareness amongst parents is very low. We think awareness about the harms of technology are constantly suppressed by the tech industry, and the lack of standards makes it a totally unregulated place. Had the crimes against children taken place in any physical space like online platforms, they would have been shut down and the management jailed. Sadly, when it comes to platforms they call it a ‘mistake’ and move on.
Can we regulate online safety?
Yes, we would have to, there is no choice. At the end of the day it's the Government responsible for the people. But there is no clarity on regulation. When it comes to India, most of the large tech firms have a branch which is like a back office with limited say on how the platform works. We find ourselves in the Wild Wild West era of technology. We need to ramp up our efforts for positive regulations and get the tech community on board. We need to develop standards, that is pretty much the focus of Wranga, for making child online safety standards. We would need to ensure that each and every platform, game, app, and IoT passes these standards and only then is accessible to people. It's a practice we see in every other technology.
However, there are challenges from the industry and policy perspective. We will see a major push back from the industry as many of the exploitative practices lead to loads of profit. Also online safety is an expensive affair so they would need to invest in a space where there is no profit to be made directly. It’s like what we observed in the Auto industry, installation of brakes, seat belts, and air bags initially were met with loads of resistance, though today cars are sold on their safety features. Though what took around 50 years in cars can be achieved in 5 years in cyber tech.
India and international approaches for Tech policy:
India is definitely one of the largest markets, though not the focus. As pointed out earlier, it's a back office for many large tech companies and policies are always reactive to meet the minimum requirement. We hope the work we do is able to help companies become proactive in maintaining the highest standards of safety. For example the policy of 13 year old’s joining social media platforms is governed by the American COPPA regulation, though in India one would have to be 18 to enter and sort of a terms and condition agreement. We as a country need to step up our Tech policy to meet global tech requirements, simultaneously get Tech companies to abide by our laws.
On similarities and differences of India with the US and Europe, India largely follows the US trend and it’s 2 years behind when it comes to Tech trends. A lot of it has to do with the tech startup funding cycles. Ideas that take off in the US usually enter India to scale, we saw it with social media platforms, short video platforms and now with crypto exchanges. Similarly policy and research also catches up once tech has been introduced. Whereas Europe is totally different, prior to the introduction of technology there is research and policy development. They like to go slow with adoption. Also Europe is traditionally known for having stronger Tech laws like GDPR.
Age Assurance in India / the Indian context:
Age Assurance is the holy grail of the internet. How do we ensure that a real person of a defined age is using the intended technology is a problem the tech industry has been trying to solve for a while. Currently, there are some solutions in the market like Yoti - www.yoti.com, recently deployed by Instagram to verify the age of the users. Similar AI technology would be required in India as well to determine the age of the users. And positive assistance by the Govt can really accelerate these developments as we have the best tech minds in our IITs. We are sure if we have an organized approach towards solving this problem, we can achieve it together.
However the Age-appropriate design, as it's a new culture that we are developing, will take time. First parents and kids need to understand its use and then adopt it to actually work and help them. Currently, most safety features are based on control. We need to make them by design, it's also because platforms are primarily created for adults then cosmetically offered to children. Safety by design is essential to make sure platforms cater to children, add value and help them grow.
Any product built for a child has to contribute to the positive growth of the child. We need to keep in mind that if the user is not able to make informed decisions hence the platform needs to take that into account. Currently, the responsibility is on parents who sadly are pretty clueless about the constantly evolving cyber world. That's where standards play an important role, that is where professionals need to audit and approve all the technology offered to children through a safety and positivity lens. We at Wranga have built such an audit system and are constantly working on rating and reviewing apps. Similar process has to be followed while designing the app, where safety is a pillar of development rather than a reactive feature added at the end.