Q&A: A passion for protecting kids

Parry Aftab, founder of a global Internet kids-safety nonprofit, is turning her charity work into a consulting business for the fast-changing world of Web 2.0.

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
8 min read

Parry Aftab wants to make the Internet safer--one social network at a time.

Founder of Wired Safety, a global Internet kids-safety nonprofit, Aftab is turning her passion for protecting kids online into a consulting business for the fast-changing world of Web 2.0 widgets, social networks, and virtual worlds. In July, she plans to launch Wired Trust, an Internet security business and certification program designed to act like an insurance policy for social sites.

Among other things, Wired Trust will advise companies on best practices involving spam, phishing attacks, member safety information, and moderating communities. It will also run a new best-practices seal program that, if effective, could give parents at least one clue about which social networks to trust.

CNET News.com talked to Aftab, a longtime attorney, before her planned announcement of Wired Trust.

Courtesy of Parry Aftab

Q: So what will Wired Trust do?
Aftab: (Last year) I started thinking about creating a consulting company that would assist everyone in the Web 2.0 space with managing all of the risks--from spam to phishing; to securing their networks; to creating safety information for their users; to creating safe content for kids; to reviewing age-verification technology; to creating and screening their moderation practices.

We will go in and kick the tires and tell companies what they need to do. If they need help writing their safety policies and practices, we'll do it for them. Or we'll do the moderation for them in six languages on a 24-7 basis. We'll develop the technology for them one time, and we'll spread that technology among all of the sites and spread the cost.

And we will certify best practices for the industry. So if a site, a Web 2.0 technology, or a widget meets our standards of practices, we will upload the Wired Trust seal from our site. What we're doing is professionalizing safety in the Web 2.0 space.

What that means is we'll have a course that you can take online to get certified for risk management in a Web 2.0 world. We're working on courses with Pace University in New York right now in the field. You can get credits for college, and eventually we'll have courses on sexual predator management or cyberbullying management.

Why do you think this is important now?
Aftab: Everyone is moving into the Web 2.0 market--brands like Nike, Disney, and Procter & Gamble. They've always controlled their brands, but now they're creating Web 2.0 networks, and they're finding out they can't control anything. So a lot of them don't know what to do. The big consulting firms don't know what to do either.

We've had a lot of venture capitalists and big companies in acquisition mode, looking at $500 million to $700 million acquisitions, ask us to look at a company and assess how safe it is, and help them find better cyber citizens in the Web 2.0 space.

Which company, which acquisition?

Aftab: I can't say. But one of the largest entertainment companies in the world approached me about a teen Web site. I reviewed the teen Web site and thought it was doing a good job.

What does "doing a good job" mean?
Aftab: They were paying attention to their users, they made it easy for people to report abuses, and they were responsive when the abuses were reported. Everyone has a Web 2.0 network these days and having one that is safe and responsive is crucial.

What was the genesis of Wired Trust?
Aftab: It came about from a conversation a year ago with a friend at an ISP I trust who wanted my help to deploy Wired Safety volunteers and help monitor their networks for risks. (Through my nonprofit), I've got thousands of volunteers to assist the networks in handling risks. But I explained that Wired Safety is a charity and not for profit and we typically don't help companies that can hire these people. We're a charity with unpaid volunteers.

The problem is that the people who are generally the one moderating the networks are offshore. They work remotely, they don't have much training, and they may not have background checks, so quality control is a real issue and so is price. If you move the task to where the consultants are trying to do it, it's very expensive, so it's a lot cheaper to it in the Philippines or China.

What kind of risks are we talking about?
Aftab: It's the risks of a Web 2.0 environment, which is an interactive Internet. It's users talking to each other while using the site as a tool; it's user-generated content where people are taking their clothes off, etc. In the Web 2.0 environment, it's like herding cats. You don't know who your users are and you can't control what they do. But you can try to control the risks.

But what are the biggest risks on social sites?
Aftab: It depends on the demographic. But for kids, it's cyberbullying. It's the biggest single problem that I have and the Web 2.0 industry has. Because 85 percent of middle schoolers I've polled--that's 40,000 of them over the last year--indicated that they've been cyberbullied at least once. The important part is not asking, "Have you been cyberbullied?" but, "Has anyone ever stolen your password, changed it, and locked you out? Or posted a picture of you online, and altered it to embarrass you?"

So back to the start of Wired Trust...
Aftab: So in February 2005, I reached out to MySpace at the time, when it only had about 5 million members. I was screaming that they had 13-year-olds on the site sharing information and their general counsel said, "Help us make it safer." And I said, "Call me on my expert attorney line and not the charity line."

After we talked to them (from the charity perspective), we agreed to give our safety tips to them and spot risks for them and make MySpace safer. Their privacy settings came out because we asked them to. I told them what to do, and it would have cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars. The time came that they didn't listen as well, but we were inside MySpace, Bebo, and all the leading social networks.

So when I got this phone call from friend at an ISP, I started to think it's better for a for-profit company to advise the industry instead of a watchdog group. The industry is more likely to share what's really going on with me if we have a nondisclosure agreement and they know I'm not going to pick up the phone and call you or the Federal Trade Commission.

How is your certification different from Trustee's privacy seal?
Aftab: I was on the board of Trustee for eight years, so I know that organization. Wired Trust deals with all aspects of best practices. If someone has a Trustee seal, we will accept that on privacy. I'll just look at everything else, and that is: What have you done about reporting different types of abuses on your site? Do you have a technology that lets people report abuse when they find them? Are you handling the abuses reported...with the most important things getting priority?

We're making sure people who are doing this and are trained in how to do it have had background checks and are consistent, so if Mary gets an e-mail, you'll get the same response from her every time. We're ensuring that they have a policy for dealing with parents, and that it's articulated. And that they have a policy for dealing with schools, so if you have a school issue involving bullying that moves online, that someone from the school can easily contact you and inform you that it's going to explode on your site. You want to make it easier for schools to control you when something hits.

We want to make sure that there's a law enforcement policy--teaching the law what information you have and what people can do on your site. How does law information get information from you in any investigations they have on a 24-7 basis? So if you have a missing child that could have anything do with your site, the last thing you want to do is tell someone to call back at 9 a.m.

Another thing is responsible advertising practices, so that you're not putting Victoria Secret ads on a profile of someone who's told you that they're 13. A good part of this is making sure that their users are educated about how to protect themselves. Another requirement of the seal is that the company will have to register with us their after-hours contact information that we will share with all the attorneys general in the United States so that if an emergency hits, the AGs can contact who's in charge.

All of these things are common sense: How safe are you? How responsive are you to the risk? And do you have a place to report abuse?

How does your group fit in with what Facebook and others are already doing with the state attorneys general?
Aftab: I'm on the task force already for MySpace and the 49 state AGs, and Facebook is on that task force with me.

It's a good fit because we have the AG in New Jersey who has come up with things she thinks are best practices. We'll keep on top of that and we'll fold that into our requirements so that you know that by qualifying for my seal, you will comply with everyone. We kind of fit on top of all of this and put it all together and make it easy to do what's right.

How much will the seal cost?
Aftab: It will start at $25,000. The price depends on how many users you have, the level of risks, how professional you are, and whether you're dealing with kids. Because when you're dealing with kids, I want to make sure they're as safe as possible.

Now you're seeing these sites where 3-year-olds can share their stuff with others. It sounds nice, but once you allow a 3-year-old to click and send, things will go wrong. Once you allow someone who's too young to judge something, you want to make sure there's a control in place that they're not going to get spammed, and parents need to know what to do to keep their kids safer. So you need tutorials.

Parents should be able to go to the parents page and get a straightforward list of five points of what the site does and what it permits kids to do--and where to go if something goes wrong. If the site charges for something, let people know what it will cost them. Everyone really is so busy trying to make money and survive in this space that safety gets short shrift.

I'm happy to let them make money and survive; and they can hire us and we'll make them safer. We created this to meet a need, but more importantly to make people safer.