Posted by Jacqueline Beauchere, Chief Online Safety Officer, Trustworthy Computing, Microsoft

When I officially assumed my new role this spring, I began a “listening tour” with the goal of further shaping Microsoft’s impact in helping to create safer, more trusted online experiences for individuals and families.  I’ve spoken with—actually interviewed—dozens of influential people both inside and outside Microsoft, in the U.S. and around the world, who have chosen to make Internet safety their life’s work.  Eighty-five conversations later (and counting), I’ve been gathering perspectives as to the current state of global online safety, the evolving risk-landscape, current hot topics, and where we may be headed next. 

In this first of a two-part blog, I’d like to share some of those themes, including insightful reflections from my interviewees, as well as offer a few thoughts about the discipline of online safety at Microsoft.

One place to start is with a definition.  When I asked experts how they define online safety, I was often met with quizzical stares or silence on the other end of the telephone line.  Indeed, people who focus on online safety, or have even a portion of it as part of their day-job, know and understand what it means.  But, to others, it might not be as clear.  I often invoked the now-famous phrase coined by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who in 1964 was attempting to define a threshold for obscenity:  We, in online safety, “know it when (we) see it.”  But, to actually articulate some strictures for the field proved somewhat more challenging.

One U.S. advocate—and this individual wasn’t alone—told me the term online safety had “outlived its purpose,” adding that, “We need to think about Internet safety as part of life, and we need to focus on how we want to live our lives online.”  Bottom line, the advocate said, online safety is about “figuring out how we can integrate technology into our lives, and do it without hurting anybody.”

“Online safety is really the set of issues that consumers are concerned about in using the Internet,” offered an executive at a major telecomm operator.  And, this from a Microsoft employee with years of experience in the space:  “It’s about how we empower young people and their families to become better digital citizens – to use technology not just as a process, but to get people to a more engaged state.” 

These perspectives are at the core of what we call “digital citizenship” – safer, responsible, and appropriate use of technology.  Fostering digital citizenship is the online equivalent of fastening seatbelts and locking doors and, suitable online habits and practices help us protect ourselves and others, as we explore and enjoy the wonders of the web.

In its most generic sense, from the perspective of all parties—consumers, technology providers, governments, NGOs, and advocates—online safety is about maximizing desirable online experiences and minimizing unwanted ones.  It’s about managing risks – from illegal, inappropriate, or illegitimate content, contact, conduct, and commerce (The “Four Cs”).  Other organizations focus on the first three “Cs,” but at Microsoft, we see risks tied to illegitimate commerce as also being safety-related.  After all, how can one take full advantage of life online if legitimate Internet commerce is hindered?  According to research firm IDC, global e-commerce, combining business-to-business and business-to-consumer transactions, will equate to $16 trillion this year.   

Indeed, online safety is about getting the most out of life online and, as we always say, everyone has a role to play. Consumers need to practice good digital citizenship and be cognizant of their online behaviors; technology providers need to innovate with safety and security top of mind, and offer customers guidance about risks and how to help combat them; governments must understand the landscape and ensure initiatives are grounded in research that accurately portrays the risks; and NGOs and advocates need to keep the conversations moving, as all parties work together to help individuals and families thrive in the digital age.  As one U.K.-based NGO leader put it: “It’s almost a public-health message, like crossing the road or learning to swim.” 

Next time:  How online safety has evolved, and what issues are likely to take center stage in the months and years to come.  In the meantime, learn more about staying safer online at our Safety & Security Center.  “Like” us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.