The Safe Internet Conundrum

By Tess Wandia
iHub Research
  Published 21 Aug 2017
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Photo Credit: How Cyber Crime Bill Will Protect Women

In the wake of the Sarahah taking over the social media scene in the past recent days, I got to thinking. Can a safe internet truly exist if the people dominating and using these spaces do not prioritise safety as a feature of the platform they are using? I’ve gotten resigned to the fact that trolls will always exist, mostly because there are so many avenues, mindsets, tools and situations that create an environment for internet trolls to thrive.

I’ve been telling anyone who asks me why I haven’t used Sarahah, that I wouldn’t even consider using it, because I believe it has the potential to do more harm than good. This of course is a personal opinion that serves me adequately and I do not hope to impose it on others. I am also glad that a number of users have gotten a positive experience from it, but admittedly it’s not for us all because there are glaring risks of using it especially depending on who you are and your visibility on the internet.

Should we then opt to legislate for a safe internet? Make it the responsibility of our governments and law enforcers to be the gatekeepers of the internet? To help make it less like the Wild Wild West it sometimes (most times) seems to be? This seems more like the whip rather than carrot approach (I confess I much prefer the latter), so how exactly can we positively incentivise internet users to uphold safety which means respect, value for privacy and toeing the legal line?

Governments have time and time again proved that they cannot solely be trusted to adequately legislate internet spaces and more often than not use justifications such as national security, child safety and corruption of ethical values to over legislate the internet space. In no way does this represent a safe internet. So does there exist no middle ground?

Internet Society proposes a multi stakeholder model to tackle policy issues concerning the internet, and perhaps this just may be the strategy to win all other strategies. (We will cover this in a future post)

Research overwhelmingly suggests that women face disproportionate harassment online as compared to their male counterparts, is this one of the contributing factors as to why cyber violence isn’t really being taken seriously? Have we given up and left the internet to the trolls?

Anonymity, a feature that can act as a double edged sword, can on one hand protect the identity of internet users who prefer to remain anonymous for individual safety reasons and on the other hand it makes it near impossible to identify those using the internet to perpetrate criminal activities.

For example in our recently concluded first phase of focus group discussions seeking to learn hypervisible women’s experiences online, one woman admitted to having used a pseudonym for her writing to maintain anonymity and undue attention to her personal life.

In the past I have heard someone loosely suggest that to open a Twitter account, users should use their full legal names which should also be visible in our username for all to see. This is definitely an extreme way to unmake Twitter the troll haven that it currently is. My guess is that’s the reason why Facebook and Twitter are worlds apart (and for this I am grateful). The very nature of Twitter gives us the opportunity to interact with a global village unlike how it works on Facebook.

I don’t think it is impossible to have a safe internet, a more constructive internet, one which promotes learning, healthy discourse and more users wanting to get online. The question that remains is, do we have the will?

How exactly can we ensure that as more people are getting online, they know how to effectively use the internet and safely too?

Get them while they’re young! As and when they are getting online!

In our project, Enhancing Internet Freedom in Kenya we seek to train 1000 high school students on how to effectively use the internet while still in their formative years as they are getting introduced to social media. This initiative dubbed #TheNext1000 will be looking to collaborate with like minded organisations and individuals to achieve this goal in training young internet users with the objective of enhancing internet freedom in Kenya by targeting the next generation of internet super users.

Stay tuned for more updates in our #InternetFreedom series.

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