Group seeks kids' online safety in the White House

Everybody wants something from the next administration, and a group called the Family Online Safety Institute is no exception, asking that increased effort be put toward kids' online safety.

The group requests that President-Elect Obama create a post of "National Safety Officer," to be located within the office of the Chief Technology Officer -- an office to which the new administration has long been committed to creating. FOSI also seeks the creation of an annual White House Online Safety Summit, a US Council for Internet Safety, and an ongoing Online Safety Program.

Lest visions of Mrs. Lovejoy start dancing (hey, no dancing!) in your head, FOSI is an actual industry organization. The membership roster includes such industry lions as Google, Cisco, Comcast, Microsoft, MySpace, Sprint, Symantec, and Verizon. The group has the twin aims of shielding kids from harmful material and protecting free speech on the Internet.

The group gathered in DC Thursday at its second annual conference. The theme was "Safe At Any Speed: Online safety tools, rules and public policies," and the report (PDF available here) was presented at that time.

The group looks at everything from cyber-bullying to ethics and media literacy, but the report focused specifically on online-safety education. The writers concluded that though many groups and organizations have good ideas and even good intentions, without a national education strategy, the message is getting lost. Even industry efforts -- MySpace's Internet Technical Task Force effort, for instance -- are getting swept away in the always-on tide.

It's not just the kids who need a talking-to, by the way. The report notes that breathless media coverage of online predators (NBC's sleazy "To Catch A Predator" series gets a mention by name) don't help. Neither does allowing the discussion to be dominated by law enforcement personnel, who tend to see situations in terms of potential crime, or by the sort of self-proclaimed experts who find that scaring people can be a rather lucrative line of work.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of the report is the information given by documentary filmmaker Rachel Dretzin on what she found during the shooting of "Growing Up Online" for Frontline. The kids are all right, she says, when it comes to "stranger danger" -- consistently rejecting requests to IM with strange adults. (Even with her, in fact, which added a degree of difficulty to making her documentary!)

Instead, the biggest problems come from other kids (cyber-bullying, harassment, dangerous behavior by fringe elements) and from the numbing effect that potentially endless exposure to pre-packaged sex and violence have on their own social interactions and worldview.

Similar results have been noted in the UK and the EU, and action is being taken there at the government level. The US, on the other hand, has no comprehensive effort in place; the report speaks well of the FTC's OnGuard Online site, but that's just one aspect of the solution. Hence the call for an executive office appointment.

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