The safety tech sector: collaborating internationally to combat online harms

The safety tech sector: collaborating internationally to combat online harms

Ian Stevenson, Chair of the Online Safety Tech Industry Association (OSTIA) and CEO of Cyan 

When the G7 meets in the UK, it will be the first time world leaders will have met face-to-face since the world changed (perhaps) irreversibly. But despite the pandemic being the priority focus for many leaders over the last year, other challenges have continued to cause concern – including online harms.

Online harms – a growing concern 

Online harms can relate to everything from the spread of hate speech to cyberbullying and suicide promotion, and public and government concern has escalated during the pandemic.  Fake news and misinformation have hampered the crisis response – exemplified when earlier this year an angry mob stormed the Capitol following claims circulated and amplified on social media that the US election was rigged. Some of this is very visible, but in darker places data from UK charity, the NSPCC and Home Office found there was a 16% rise in online sexual abuse crimes against children in the months after the first COVID-19 lockdown in England and Wales.  

Ultimately, online harms are detrimental to wellbeing, equality, diversity, public safety and even democracy itself.  Lives can be destroyed by sexual abuse, or even ended by forums that encourage suicide.  We must do better. 

Fighting online harms on G7 level 

Thankfully, governments are starting to realise just how important and urgent the situation is becoming. The G7 recently committed to collaborating to improve online safety, and we are seeing more regulation at a national level to protect individuals from harm online – including the UK’s Online Harms Bill, Germany’s Network Enforcement Act NetzDG and the EU’s Digital Services Act.  

There is no doubt that laws like these are needed, but often there are challenges in framing these laws, getting backing for them, and implementing them successfully.  One of the biggest comes from the need for balance between powers needed to prevent online harms and other fundamental rights of citizens including privacy and freedom of speech. 

Safety vs privacy 

Very often the tension between these rights is presented as a set of polar opposites. For example, some privacy advocates claim that online safety laws will come at the expense of all our private thoughts and messages becoming public, while those concerned with safety attack the technologies and approaches that protect user privacy. While these extreme positions are provocative and unhelpful, there are genuine tensions between the needs of creating a safer internet, protecting user privacy and enabling free speech.   

There are seldom absolute answers, but we manage issues such as this through open debate, a process of constant evolution and refinement as society learns and develops. 

Addressing online harms is still a relatively new idea, so the debate is yet to mature.  It’s further complicated by the technological domain it operates in. Most lawmakers, citizens and journalists have a limited understanding of how technology works and what is and isn’t possible.  That’s completely understandable – it’s a complex and technical area.  However, this disconnect seriously hampers the quality of the debate – and therefore our ability as a society to make good decisions. 

The rise of safety tech 

This is where a growing cohort of online safety tech companies can make a real contribution.  These companies specialise in understanding how to deliver safer online experiences without unnecessary or disproportionate intrusion to users’ privacy or free speech.  People working in this sector are creating innovative new ways of identifying and mitigating critical harms without resorting to reading people’s messages. Often this technology operates a bit like a metal detector – it is designed to detect just one thing (e.g., Child Sexual Abuse) and ignores everything else. Leaders in the sector are working with governments, regulators, law enforcement, charities and of course big tech to deliver solutions, and to inform the debate.  Critically, it is helping to ensure that new laws are crafted to cope with the next generation of innovations as well as with today’s problems. 

OSTIA – the world’s first safety tech industry representative 

There is no doubt in my mind that we are at an inflection point when it comes to online safety and the role that technology will play in tackling the issues that arise from this. As a sector, we need to collaborate to address and resolve a global issue. In the UK, OSTIA (the Online Safety Tech Industry Association) plays a key role in bringing this expertise into the debate, and it is increasingly working internationally.  

OSTIA also provides the safety tech sector with a supportive eco-system that allows businesses operating within it the opportunity to learn, evolve and grow. The UK also has a Safety Tech Innovation Network bringing together industry, government, academia, charities and big tech. The UK sector alone has grown 40% in the last year and we fully expect that trend to continue internationally.  

Safety tech goes to Germany 

In Germany, companies like Safetonet, Newsguardtech and Superawesome who are already active in the market, are setting the tone in the sector and contributing to limiting online harms. Equally, DIT Germany is leading some excellent initiatives to internationalise the UK Safety tech sector nurturing UK-German collaboration and UK exports in online harms technology. Recent activities included a high level roundtable, a public panel as part of the UK GE TechforGood Talks, a brand protection webinar in partnership with the British Chamber of Commerce and the creation of a UK GE Safety tech network 

The challenges of online harms are inherently international.  Big tech companies are often based in the US, but their users are all over the world and laws are made at a national or supra-national (or at EU) level.  Certainly, the UK has demonstrated the value of engagement, innovation networks, industry associations and events, but this work needs to become international – whether growing out of the UK or through the establishment of other clusters of activity at national or supra-national level.  Germany is also a great example of a country where the legislative and industry environments could justify the creation of such clusters. 

Find out more and get engaged 

Collective action and international collaboration will be vital to improving online safety; words that represent the efforts to save lives, safeguard children from sexual abuse and protect our social and democratic functions. OSTIA is delighted to be at the heart of this action and collaboration in the UK and looks forward to working increasingly internationally in Germany and elsewhere to explore how innovation and creativity can overcome the challenges in delivering online safety.