By David Ryan Polgar

Times_Square-FLKR, by Wally Argus. Creative Commons, Flickr

Times_Square-FLKR, by Wally Argus. Creative Commons, Flickr

The Internet is a giant city and we are its digital citizens.

As such, it is constantly changing in its levels of vibrancy, participation, and safety. And just like any city across the globe, we argue about ways to maintain its strengths and improve upon its weaknesses.

This week a hot topic has been the release of YouTube Kids, a child-friendly version of YouTube. While seemingly separate from the larger narrative of how the Internet is changing, YouTube Kids may prove to be a watershed moment in the evolution of the web. The Internet, like a city, may be becoming a safer place where certain content gets placed behind proverbial doors, inaccessible to citizens based on age.

“For parents, YouTube has always been a double-edged sword. A lot of kid-friendly content already exists on the platform, but there was no effective way to manage kids’ viewing habits (without standing over their shoulder, that is). More risqué content was always a single tap away. YouTube Kids addresses those concerns by providing an app where all content has been screened and deemed appropriate for children.” –Pete Pachel, YouTube Kids is the preschooler version of YouTube, ads and all, Mashable

The citizens have demanded cleaner streets. The risqué content is still on the Internet at large, but it is not as easily accessible. This is the same way we treat any city. You can walk around in the buff in your house, but don’t try stripping down on the sidewalk. An individual’s rights and behavior is weighed against the concerns for society. We argue about balance, and try to create the best place we can.

I like to think of the Internet as New York City.

New York has become dramatically safer and cleaner over the last 30 years. So dramatic, in fact, that its transformation has befuddled social scientists. Central Park, once a place known for muggings and assaults, is now filled with families and bikers. 42nd Street, once a seedy strip of adult theaters, is now a line of happy tourists from Bryant Park to Times Square and beyond.

The Internet, like New York City, can dramatically change for the better.

So what areas does our city need to clean up? For 2015, I’d say trolls and terrorists. It has been disconcerting to read that ISIS may be utilizing Twitter, an American company, as a recruitment tool to draw Westerners into Syria (and other places).

Stop and think about that for a minute: terrorists are hanging out in the same location that we’re trading news, viral videos, and snarky comments about the Kardashians. [The terrorists then communicate via the dark web.] That’s absurd. I want terrorists off the proverbial streets, unable to potentially mingle with the masses. Not in my backyard.

How could this possibly happen? Under the Communications Decency Act of 1996, companies like Twitter are not held responsible for unlawful content transmitted through their service. That’s how Craigslist was able to become a known platform for prostitution without being successfully sued. And that’s why Google, owner of YouTube, isn’t liable every time ISIS uploads propaganda videos with disturbing images.

Online companies have long claimed that it isn’t feasible to police their content. Instead, content is typically posted and then taken down after complaints. The creation of YouTube Kids seems to be a step by Google/YouTube to take more responsibility for the content uploaded to their site, and to the users who view them. Instead of just throwing up their hands and hiding behind the law, they are taking a proactive step.

That’s a very positive development. Likewise, a demand may build for Twitter to take a more active role in policing their streets.

As far as trolls go, we seem to be feeling out what the best solution is. Like the “squeegee-men” of New York’s past (people who would wipe your car window and then demand payment), trolls are a nuisance that can hurt your overall experience. We expect a certain modicum of civility in our Internet City, and trolls fall below our agreed-upon standard of behavior. It’s time for action.

Let’s make our City beautiful.

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