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COLUMN: Safer Internet Day focuses on respectful communication

European initiative examines fake news, promotes empathy and exposes online hate

While we were on or phones, tablets and computers, Safer Internet Day on Tuesday, Feb. 11, went mostly unnoticed here in Canada.

The day was created by the Insafe/Inhope network in Europe, to address a number of online concerns.

Internet safety is on the minds of most if not all internet users.

There are news stories left and right addressing risks from online technologies. And at least once a month I hear about someone from our region who was targeted by online scammers.

I also follow Naked Security by Sophos, which highlights news of data breaches, encryption issues, creating secure passwords for online accounts, identity theft and avoiding online scams.

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This is the way we in North America have approached internet safety. We look at the risks and we examine ways to enhance security.

But in Europe, where Safer Internet Day originated, the focus is different.

While the Europeans also care about passwords, security and data hacks, Safer Internet Day puts the emphasis online etiquette, cyberbullying and learning how to check the accuracy of online information.

“Safer Internet Day aims to create both a safer and a better internet, where everyone is empowered to use technology responsibly, respectfully, critically and creatively,” the organization’s website states.

There are information packages and teaching aids from around the continent, in many languages.

Many of these deal with online information.

A program offered in English and other languages examines fact-checking. Estonia and Slovakia have information programs about fake news and online lies. A Danish program looks at ways to identify lies, manipulation and propaganda online.

The tone of conversation is also addressed.

Finland offers Empatia netissä, or Empathy Online.

A program out of Ireland is titled Talking to you teenager about respectful communication.

In addition, the Europeans are including racism and hate speech in their approach to creating a safer internet.

From Germany, “But…” is a course block to teach students about racism and stereotypes. There are other German-language initiatives to address hate speech online.

From Portugal, another program also examines the problem of online hate speech.

This emphasis on respectful and prudent online behaviour places the focus on ethics and manners rather than on encryption and privacy.

Some may disagree with this approach. In a world where internet crimes and scams make the news on a weekly if not daily basis, why not simply focus on security measures?

Tightening security is seen as the way to make the internet safer.

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Others might argue that “racism” and “hate speech” are nothing more than code words used to denigrate those who dare to speak the truth. Therefore, initiatives to combat racism and online hate will result in a forced self-censorship.

However, the European approach recognizes an important fact. A code of conduct is needed in the online world.

Real-world societies, communities and nations have social norms and standards of ethical responsibility, as well as laws governing conduct.

But the online world is often a place where such standards and laws do not exist.

Communication technologies have advanced, but the ethics surrounding the use of these technologies have not caught up.

It is easy to send a message that can be seen or heard around the world, but with this power comes the responsibility to communicate wisely.

Hateful statements, including some targeting people of specific ethnicities and religious beliefs, are posted far too frequently.

Without teaching the importance of empathy and respect, hateful ideologies will grow unchecked.

Angry words posted online can lead to physical demonstrations of hate.

The European focus on respectful speech, avoiding hate and checking facts can result in a more respectful and safer internet.

And this in turn can create a more respectful and safer world.

John Arendt is the editor of the Summerland Review.

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