Kim Sanchez, Director of Privacy and Online Safety with the Trustworthy Computing Group at Microsoft welcomed the audience. Robin Blake, Executive Director, ICT & Society Division, ictQATAR delivered opening remarks where he mentioned that the Internet has brought the world together and that this event featured representatives from more than 20 countries. Blake mentioned that the large majority of Qataris own computers and use broadband to go online. He noted that many parents are learning about the Internet from their own kids but there is a need to help children realize the opportunities of the Internet while protecting them from danger. Blake talked about the importance of building a knowledge-based economy and ensuring that children have the right skills for success. He mentioned the new National Committee for Internet Safety in Qatar which will work to raise awareness, conduct research, and help develop solutions for Internet issues. Blake said that he hoped the conference would be the start of an ongoing conversation on a global level to help children maximize digital skills while minimizing dangers.
FOSI’s CEO, Stephen Balkam, was joined in conversation with Ambassador David Gross to help set the scene for the event. Balkam and Gross discussed where things were 10 years ago in terms of Internet regulation and trying to balance protecting children and free speech. Gross talked about the difficult dynamics of this issue especially because of traditional societal tensions and he said that a lot of these issues are variations on an old theme of kids knowing more about technology than parents. When Balkam asked about the role of government dealing with Internet safety Gross said that there is an emerging consensus that a top-down set of rules cannot work. He explained that technology changes and the nature of the issues changes and a multi-stakeholder approach that includes government, schools, parents, and NGOs will be the best approach and each country and society may have different results.
Gross also talked about the issue of privacy and the global set of challenges around this issue. He commented that privacy protection is often seen by the government as important to people but often no one is asked how they would like to see it exercised. Gross talked about how people report that privacy is important but they also care about the speed and ability to quickly go where they want online. He also discussed the tremendous opportunities the Internet creates that can empower young people and lead to job creation and futures based on knowledge. Gross explained that in many countries only a few years ago one’s future was determined on who their parents were and what country they were born in, but technology and access to information means that is no longer the case.
The first panel of the day was “What the Numbers are Telling Us.” This panel featured research presentations by Professor Julia Davidson, Department of Criminology, Kingston University; Fadi Salem, Director, Governance and Innovation Program at the Dubai School of Government; and Sherif Issa, the Head of Health & Environment for Mobinil. Salem talked about how social media can be a tool of empowerment especially for Arab women and that a virtual gender gap exists but social media may become a gender equalizer. Issa explored the results of a recent survey about parents and children using mobile and said that Egypt has almost 100% mobile penetration by the time people are teens. Davidson urged more research in the region and Salem agreed that there should be more funding to research the growth of the use of digital media in the Middle East.
One session focused on the impact of social media, the tools being used to help people stay safe online, and the global issues and work being done in this field. “The Social Media Impact” was moderated by Larry Magid, Co-director of ConnectSafely.org and featured speakers from Facebook, Aljazeera, Yahoo! and OfOk System who discussed the impact of social media on the Arab Spring as well as balancing social media use at home and incorporating it in the classroom.
Panel topics also covered international trends and challenges, mobile usage, tools and technologies for staying safe, digital literacy and technology in the classroom, how young people in the Middle East can benefit from the Internet, and how online safety is dealt with at a local level in Qatar by law enforcement, psychologists, and education officials. Some panelists commented about the importance of the family unit in the Arab world and suggested that parents need to learn where their kids are going online and share wisdom with their kids and encourage an open dialogue.
During “The Future of the iSchool,” participants commented about the need for teachers to get training so they can understand how to use technology. Panelists also mentioned the knowledge gap between parents and children who are using technology at school, especially in a country where many kindergarten aged students have their own iPads.
Panelists on Young Arabs in a Digital Age talked about the need for more Arabic content online especially for women. Many of the participants felt that app and website developers should look at this as a huge opportunity for the creation of new content. The discussion also concentrated on content filtering and suggested that as a region content filtering should not be relied on to fix problems and that tools and filters used at the home level would be more effective. Participants also talked about ways to promote ecommerce in Qatar and how to help people overcome fears of identity theft and risks of buying online.
Ambassador Sylvia Poll, Costa Rica’s Ambassador to the ITU also participated in the event. Ambassador Poll discussed the ITU framework and child online protection strategy. Ambassador Poll interacted with the young students present in the room and talked about the need to get rid of stereotypes about working in the tech industry to encourage young women to work in ICT.
The conference concluded with “Setting the Middle East Online Safety Agenda” which featured a discussion about best practices for the region going forward. Jeffrey Avina from Microsoft mentioned the need to have a Pan Arab movement on Internet safety and security including having a Middle East Internet Safety Day similar to what is done in Europe. Avina advocated for uniform policies across the region and making sure that government engages with civil society. He also suggested the created of a pan Arab portal for Internet safety to help identify the best practices and research available in Arabic.