Responding to Cyberbullying – the Role of Internet Companies

Today I presented on a panel entitled, "“The Role of the Internet Industry in the Fight Against Online Hate Speech" at the Global Summit on Internet Hate Speech.  Here is my presentation, opening remarks below:

Responding to Cyberbullying - the Role of Internet Companies

Microsoft is proud to be a sponsor of the "Global Summit on Internet Hate Speech," part of the company's ongoing efforts with the Anti-Defamation League to combat cyberbullying.  I had the honor of addressing the conference in a panel program entitled, "The Role of the Internet Industry in the Fight Against Online Hate Speech." Also at the conference on Tuesday, 18 November, 2008, we announced that Microsoft has launched a new outreach and education effort for government and policy makers, aimed at combating cyberbullying.  The new anti-cyberbullying materials are posted on the TwC Policymakers Website, including, "Protecting Your Kids from Cyberbullying," and "Cyberbullying Fact Sheet."

To frame this discussion, I wanted to make two points: first, that Internet company actions do have an impact on the online environment, and they can make a difference in responding to problems like abuse of the Internet to harass people, spread false information, violate privacy or perpetuate racist threats.  The second was that how Internet companies do respond needs to take into account some of the important architectural choices that make the Internet succeed the way it does, that preserve other important societal values like privacy and free expression, and that recognize other responsibilities of internet companies, particularly where the company is acting as an open platform. 

So, for example, at Microsoft we often apply our own value judgments to content we choose to publish, such as video games - trying to offer the market something for everyone but also having clear guidelines about content we won't accept.  We do some of that, but less, where we host communities or offer online services such as blogs, video sharing, or online email.  In those contexts, we respond to complaints of abuse and enforce terms of use where necessary - such as to respond to harassment or obscenity - but we also recognize that folks don't want or expect Microsoft to go too far in telling them what they can post or what opinions they can hold.  Where we're an open platform, like Windows operating systems or Office software, folks expect us to step back from responding to the content they may type in an Outlook mail or Word document - and just to pay attention to making the software work well.

Within that context, though, there's much that Microsoft believes we can do to address cyberbullying and online hate - in particular, tools and guidance.  Tools, in the form of family safety software for Windows computers and Xbox game consoles, and for Windows Live and Xbox Live services, that allows parents to create child accounts and manage the contacts who are allowed to interact with their child.  We also offer tools that allow parents, in a way that is transparent to the child, to examine what's going on when their child is online.  And with these tools it's important to offer guidance.  Microsoft partners with safety and parenting experts to help provide information about how to use these tools, how to incorporate them into a safety program, and how to respond if bullying does occur.

We also think young people will better be able to recognize and avoid hateful content and bullying if they are taught the strategies bullies and hate promoters use and the history of racism.  Being able to recognize hateful content and symbols on Web sites-for example, swastikas, derogatory references to race or sexual orientation - can help with the process of understanding the impact such content can have and what the root causes are.  Being able to spot bullying can not only help victims or potential victims, but also better help kids observe their own actions for things that are inappropriate, and learn to follow online etiquette.  Another reason to talk about bullying is that while there's evidence to suggest bullying online is pretty widespread, it may not be something kids fully understand.  Victims of cyberbullying may feel ashamed, or blame themselves and even think they'll get in trouble if they tell their parents. 

The discussion Tuesday closed on a hopeful note; I'll do so here as well - and close by saying the main point we've learned is that the best way to protect your child from cyberbullying is to get involved.

Ask your children to give you an "online tour" of the websites they visit most often. Have them talk about what they see. Ask if they've ever seen anything they felt was wrong or troubling.

Put the family computer and internet-connected game consoles in a central location like the kitchen or family room, so you can keep an eye on what your kids are doing.

Have a serious discussion about cyberbullying with older kids who are often not supervised online. They may be too old for "over-the-shoulder" monitoring 24/7 but they do need to know that there are rules of right and wrong and that there are expectations as to how they'll behave even when unsupervised.

Make sure your kids feel safe reporting bullying to you. Promise to help them deal with bullying if it happens to them - and lay out the clear consequences they will face if they ever engage in cyberbullying against others.

Chuck Cosson, Senior Policy Counsel, Microsoft

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