For some time, collaborative technologies have tested many companies' ability to assess risk and have stretched the boundaries of network connectivity and IT policy. I suspect there are few companies whose network architectures were not driven, in some way, through the use of collaborative technologies. There are also many IT policies that owe their heritage to them as well. But hopefully we have reached a level of maturity where we can productively collaborate using the Internet with some level of assurance that it is secure.
However, a new segment of collaborative technologies is starting to push the limits; not of companies, but parents who are concerned about the safety of their children who spend a significant amount of their time online. If you have teenagers, or preteens, on the Internet then you are probably familiar with MySpace. The growth in popularity of MySpace is astounding. According to Alexa, it recently passed eBay to become the fifth most popular site on the Internet worldwide behind Yahoo!, Google, MSN, and Baidu. In the United States it is more popular than MSN.
With this rise in popularity has come an increase in scrutiny, particular around the dangers of online predators looking for children on MySpace. Recognizing a sensational story, mainstream media has seized on this opportunity to bump their ratings with some dramatic reporting about the dangers of the Internet.
Not to be outdone, the "Suburban Caucus" has introduced legislation in the United States House of Representatives called the "Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA)". The act requires schools and libraries that receive government funding to restrict access to sites like MySpace. Candice Miller, a representative from my state of Michigan, has a page on her website announcing the Suburban Caucus agenda that says DOPA "cracks down on websites like MySpace.com".
The fact that the U.S. Congress is considering legislation controlling any part of the social networking market should be a concern to all of us in the collaborative technologies business. I am not an expert on the legalese contained in the act but it seems to leave room for a lot of interpretation. Some are suggesting it is too broad and could cover sites like Wikipedia. Others are saying this legislation will do nothing to protect children, gives parents a false sense of security, and will force kids to use social networking sites away from adult supervision.
Nevertheless, once we start having a conversation about whether social networking is safe or not we quickly lose sight of the fact that these emerging technologies will be essential elements of the digital workplace of the future. Examples of this are emerging today. Consider:
- Microsoft's recent announcement of Knowledge Network for Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007
- A startup service from Tacit called Illumio
The impact of this type of legislation on the use of collaborative technologies inside companies could be significant. A constant flow of young people joining the U.S. workforce has always been a way to inject new perspectives and new methods into the workforce. Limiting access to these collaborative technologies to students with Internet access at home could result in a smaller workforce capable of using them in their professional lives. In addition, creating a culture of fear around social networking systems limits our country's ability to leverage them to their fullest extent and creates a more sheltered and disengaged workforce from the rest of the world.
Nevertheless, there are risks involved in the use of social networking systems such as MySpace. Nancy Willard, the Director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use, has a more rational approach for addressing these risks and it doesn't require legislation. In a paper published earlier this year Nancy says "There are many positive examples of interactions in these communities" and "Adults should not underestimate the attractiveness of these online environments". She leads parents and educators to an approach by an analogy with teaching your child how to cross the street:
"The process of empowering students to make safe and responsible Internet decisions online can be compared to the process by which young people are empowered to safely cross a busy street. When children are too young to recognize the dangers, parents hold their hand. As they grow, parents stay by their side and talk about safety and good decision-making. Parents progressively back off, allowing children to make decisions on their own, but keeping an eye on their choices."
Nancy's analogy brings us back to the age-old challenge for parents. When do you protect and when do you let go? In many ways teaching your child about online safety is no different from teaching them how to cross the street or to behave around swimming pools. This is not a technology problem or one that can be legislated away. This is an awareness and educational problem.
The first place to start is with parents. Already overwhelmed with the challenges of raising a family, there is often little or no time available to become familiar with new Internet technologies. However, busy parents prioritize their time by focusing on what they feel is most needed by their children. MySpace is presently portayed as a safety issue since the content on the website is considered frivolous and without value (an interesting discussion on the value of MySpace can be found in an interview of Dana Boyd and Henry Jenkins).
This perspective certainly gets a parent's attention but often with a misguided response. We must also inject into the discussion the need for teaching children how to use Internet technologies responsibly so they can succeed in their adult professional lives. The message for parents must be about preparing children to succeed, not just keeping them from harm.