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  • Writer's pictureKirra Pendergast

Back to the future.

Back in '91, when I first dived into the tech world, things were very different. We were still using those "in" and "out" trays on our desks, and the speed of tech advancements was blowing my mind daily. But one thing has always stayed the same; technology is always miles ahead of laws trying to keep up with it.

Over the past 30+ years, I've become somewhat of a cyber law buff. I've been studying it informally for years, and I even applied and got a spot at a prestigious university in a Master of Laws program. I ended up saying no. The reason? The online trust and safety world is like a shapeshifter, changing so fast that by the time a law is made, it's often already behind the times. I would have had to cite things I knew needed to be updated if I was to study in the area I was specialising in.

The only thing consistent my whole career is the importance of critical thinking and risk mitigation and the need to get the foundations right. These three things are indispensable when dealing with rapid technological changes.

Smartphones and social media brought issues like cyberbullying, online harassment, and exposure to inappropriate content to the masses. We saw it coming, we were already in the trenches living it. What is now Safe on Social was formed seven years before Australia had what was in 2015 the Children's eSafety Commissioner. We have some laws now, but as new tech emerges, it is sometimes like a free-for-all for large periods. And it's not just about the laws; it's also about how they're enforced. The trouble is enforcement can be patchy, especially when tech crosses borders, or the experience filed in a complaint or a court case doesn't align with parts of the legislation.

And then there is the lag, the time law, and policies take to catch up. This week the QLD government followed a few other states and banned smartphones a whopping 15yrs after they appeared in the mainstream. Some organisations we are working with did not have social media guidelines or policies in place until we helped them out.

Here is an interesting timeline for you:

Internet in Australia (1989) - Australia connected to the Internet in June 1989 through a connection made by the University of Melbourne.

Policy Response (1997) - The Australian government passed the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Online Services) Act in 1997, providing a regulatory framework for internet content for the first time. The gap between the rollout and policy implementation was around eight years.

Commercialisation of the Internet Worldwide (1991) - The Internet was first commercialised in 1991 when the restrictions on its commercial use were lifted.

Policy Response (1996) - The Telecommunications Act of 1996 in the US was one of the first attempts to regulate the Internet on a larger scale, aiming to foster competition in the telecommunications industry. The gap was about five years, and regulation is still all over the place.

Broad Adoption of E-commerce (mid-1990s) - The rise of companies like Amazon and eBay signaled the mainstream adoption of e-commerce.

Policy Response (2000) - The Australian government launched the GST (Goods and Services Tax) in 2000, including electronic commerce provisions. The gap was roughly five years.

Social Media Boom (2004) - Facebook, arguably the most influential social media platform, was launched in 2004.

Policy Response (2011) - Australia passed the Privacy Amendment (Enhancing Privacy Protection) Act in 2012, which made several changes to the Privacy Act 1988, adding more protections for individuals' personal information, partly in response to social media's growth. The gap was around seven years.

Smartphone Revolution (2007) - The release of the first iPhone in 2007 sparked the smartphone revolution, reshaping how people interact with the Internet.

Policy Response (2012) - The Telecommunications Consumer Protections Code was updated in 2012 to protect consumers better as the smartphone market grew. The gap was about five years.

The rise of AI and Machine Learning (2010s) - Though the concepts have existed for decades, AI and machine learning technologies started having significant practical impacts in the 2010s.

Policy Response (2019) The Australian Government published a national AI Ethics Framework in 2019 to guide the responsible development and use of AI. The gap was about a decade, yet the government and academia were somewhat blindsided by GenAi being used by students widely when it suddenly was everywhere in early 2023. They should have seen it coming and the digital divide it is causing. We are working with forward-thinking schools daily on this and speaking at conferences on the positive use of when risk is managed appropriately.

Broad Adoption of Cryptocurrencies (2010s) - Bitcoin was invented in 2009, but cryptocurrencies gained broad attention in the mid-2010s.

Policy Response (2021) - In 2021, the Australian government introduced the Digital Currency Bill that recognised Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies as legal forms of payment. The gap was approximately a decade.

Note: These timelines are estimations based on the technologies' large-scale recognition and adoption. Additionally, the gap years do not necessarily imply that governments were not engaging with these technologies in any way before these major policy implementations.

What is happening right now with GenAi hitting the workplace and education feels like I'm on a weird rewind a "back to the future" scenario. I saw and was a part of the policy-making and training scene when social media blasted into our lives out of nowhere in the mid 2000's. One moment, everyone was like, "Nah, it's just a fad," and then - boom - it was all over the place. When it comes to GenAi I am seeing the same thing. Should we ban it, or should we embrace it? Is it cheating, or is it a tool? We don’t have a choice in my eyes. It’s here, and if we don’t embrace it, teach our kids to use it, learn how to assess learning with it, and use it to increase productivity in the workplace, the digital divide will widen even further. Those who did and those who didn’t.

I am as busy as I was in the mid-2000's again, hosting training and writing policies and guidelines for businesses and schools who can see the benefit of GenAi and are going for it ahead of any formal government policies. The great thing about being in tech for so long is I have learned firsthand the benefits of living this all before and what works and what doesn't and I can back my team to guide our clients accordingly, mitigating risks along the way.

This morning Madeleine (co-founder of Safe on Social UK) and I had a long conversation about a new and confronting trend happening among kids (she is writing about it, so stay tuned). We will release that in the coming days after fact-checking is complete.

Madeleine and I will release a whole swathe of the most forward-thinking available education programs in the next two weeks when all Australian schools return from holidays – Workplace Wellness for businesses, New focused parent education programs, and the most forward-thinking Professional Learning available. These programs will focus on GenAi, Online Trust and Safety, and Child Predation detection (which Madeleine has first-hand experience with). These courses will be available onsite and online through our Australian, UK, and US offices.

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