A group of Internet safety experts plans to announce next month a new start-up aimed at helping social networks provide safer Web 2.0 environments for kids and adults.
The company, called Wired Trust, will officially launch July 1. It will be one of the first consulting companies designed specifically to help social networks and kids' virtual worlds navigate safety issues in an age of cyberbullying, Internet predators, and anything-goes content from members.
Parry Aftab, a longtime Internet attorney, said she will announce the for-profit entity next month at a cyberbullying conference in New York put on by Wired Safety, a charitable watchdog group that she founded in the '90s.
Aftab will be joined by Peter Cassidy, head of the Anti-Phishing Working Group; Linda Criddle, former chief internal kids-safety expert at Microsoft; Catherine Bolton, who just stepped down as president of Public Relations Association; and Kelly Emerick, who will run one-to-one government relations in Washington. The group has also teamed with McAfee and the National Research Council in Canada, a government think tank, for technology development.
"All of us are joining forces to help these social-networking sites manage risks," Aftab said in an interview.
The move comes as all the major social networks including Facebook and MySpace, along with companies like Disney and Nike, are trying to figure out how to build a virtual safety net in their social environments online to protect themselves and users from trouble. For example, Facebook just reached an agreement with the attorneys general of 49 states and the District of Columbia that requires it to set up principles for user safety on its social network.
Aftab said that her company will advise small and large companies on industry best practices for running a safe social environment online. That includes looking at spam and phishing vulnerabilities, security of the network, member-safety policies, age-verification technology and moderation practices around user-generated content. For an undisclosed price, Wired Trust will even do the work for clients.
"We go in and kick the tires and tell them what they need to do. If they need help writing their safety policies and practices, we'll do it for them. Or we'll do the moderation for them in six languages on a 24-7 basis," Aftab said.
In addition, the company will introduce a new best practices certification program, which includes courses on cyberbullying and sexual predator management. Wired Trust is working with New York-based Pace University on an online course curriculum, Aftab said.
At next month's conference, Wired Trust will announce its first trusted seal recipients, which will include a popular teen social network. The seal is called the Wired Trust Best Practices.
The company, which will open its doors formally on July 1, is currently building an institute and center in Canada to house about 30 people. Aftab said that Wired Trust will hire as many as 300 staff by the end of the year.
She said that Wired Trust will also have seven charter members to help fund the start-up. (She would not name the potential partners.) But those members would have access to services from Wired Trust not available to clients, including a safety "swat" team that would handle any fallout related to a data breach or a child-safety incident, for example.
"We'll come in with a leading expert to put out their fire. We'll deploy on a 24-7 basis," she said.
Richard Smith, a longtime security expert who's not involved with the project, said that demand for these kinds of services typically comes down to corporate risk management--a company simply wants to stay out of trouble, or avoid bad stories in the press.
But Smith said he would rather see an industry or academic focus on teaching kids about the dangers of posting so much information about themselves on sites like Facebook and MySpace. He said that issue still hasn't been fully addressed.
"In terms of education, I see people being too open and not thinking through the consequences. Whether an organization can deal with that, I'm not sure. But we need to ask kids, 'Do you really want to have these online diaries?' And that what's these sites end up encouraging," he said.