Building a safer and better internet starts with us

 |   Richard Koh, Chief Technology Officer, Microsoft Singapore

Male, female and child working together on laptop in family room. Homework, studying.

This article was first published in The New Paper on 25 March 2019.

Deleting unsolicited emails, checking the internet to verify a news source and blocking unwanted sources of sexual images – does any of these describe a typical scenario in your everyday life?

The digital world that we live in today, while extremely full of promise, is also filled with risks coming from all around. Each day, we are bombarded with unsolicited online content ranging from emails sent by unknown third-parties to the circulation of fake news and unwanted sexual messages. And these represent just a fraction of the common scenarios that Singaporeans face in everyday living.

With our lives now heavily intertwined with the Internet – from children who rely on the Internet for content, to teenagers whose lives revolve around social media, the working class who complete most of their work and personal errands online, and the elderly who rely on the constant connectivity provided by the Internet to keep in touch with their family and loved ones – there is no doubt that the huge amounts of time spent online is putting us at a greater danger of online risks at the same time.

The latest edition of the Microsoft Digital Civility Study conducted by Microsoft with 11,000 respondents in 22 countries globally, including 500 adults (aged 18 to 74) and teenagers (aged 13 to 17) in Singapore in May 2018, was specifically designed to uncover insights into consumers’ lifetime exposure to a wide range of online risks, including their exposure to unwanted contact; hoaxes, scams and fraud; behavioural risks and sexual risks.

The Study revealed that while Singaporeans encountered online risks at a lower rate compared to the global average, they stood out for receiving offensive or obscene content, encountering fake news, and being called offensive names at a higher rate compared to the global average, with 68 percent, 61 percent and 54 percent of the respondents encountering these online situations respectively. In addition, teenagers and millennials in Singapore were also found to be at a higher risk of encountering online risks compared to the other demographic groups, making them particularly vulnerable to cyberbullying.

In terms of the consequences that these unwelcomed online behaviours had on consumers across the board, the Study uncovered that 38 percent of Singapore respondents became less trusting of other people online, 30 percent said that their life became more stressful, and 27 percent became less trusting of other people offline as a result of encountering these online risks.

What was more alarming was the discovery that despite the negative consequences, less than a fifth of Singapore respondents took positive action in response to the online risks they encountered. Only 18 percent said that they paused before replying to someone they disagreed with online, 13 percent showed respect for other people’s point of view, 10 percent defended someone who was treated in an uncivil manner online and 8 percent treated the other person with dignity and respect.

These findings raised a few key questions. Have Singaporeans become so accustomed to uncivil online behaviours that they don’t take action against them? Or has the overall online culture of acceptance and tolerance played a role in the general lack of action in response to the risks encountered?

As we continue to explore the reasons behind these trends, we need to be keenly aware that building a safer Internet environment starts with us. In fact, all of us – as online citizens – have important roles to play to help foster a better and safer Internet for everyone.

This message was also highlighted in this year’s Better Internet Campaign; by providing Singaporeans from all walks of life with practical tips on how to be kind, smart and safe online, the campaign hopes to build a better online environment to help them use, create and share online content responsibly.

In line with this initiative, Microsoft has also launched its annual Digital Civility Challenge to encourage Singapore consumers to take up the challenge and practise the four digital civility ideals to create a more positive online environment for everyone. These include:

  • Living the golden rule: I will act with empathy, compassion and kindness in every interaction, and treat everyone I connect with online with dignity and respect.
  • Respecting differences: I will appreciate cultural differences and honor diverse perspectives. When I disagree, I will engage thoughtfully and avoid name calling and personal attacks.
  • Pausing before replying: I will pause and think before responding to things I disagree with. I will not post or send anything that could hurt someone else, damage someone’s reputation, or threaten my safety or the safety of others.
  • Standing up for myself and others: I will tell someone if I feel unsafe, offer support to those who are targets of online abuse or cruelty, report activity that threatens anyone’s safety, and preserve evidence of inappropriate or unsafe behavior.

With the ever-increasing amount of time being spent online, let us quit being bystanders of uncivil online behaviour and commit to being kinder, more civil and more respecting of the differences in our online interactions with others. Only by taking positive action ourselves, will we be able to help build a better and safer internet for everyone.

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