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Canadian startup imagines a troll-free Internet using new software

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Chris Priebe has what many would call an impossible goal for the Internet. He wants to make it a troll-free space.

Mr. Priebe is the chief executive officer of Two Hat Security Ltd., a company based in Kelowna, B.C., that offers community management software that he hopes can revolutionize the Internet. The software, Community Sift, aims to limit harassment, bullying and harmful conversations online.

Last month, the company raised $1.6-million in seed funding, bringing its total to about $2.5-million. The most recent round of financing was led by iNovia Capital, an early-stage venture-capital firm that will work with the company as it tries to achieve its ambitious goal of creating a troll-free Internet.

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Harassment has become a scourge of the online world. A 2014 Pew Research Center study found that 40 per cent of American adults experience online harassment. The study also found that women 18 to 24 years old experience severe types of harassment at disproportionately high levels, with one in four having been the target of online sexual harassment.

However, Mr. Priebe said it's only a small portion – "maybe 1 per cent" – of users who are creating problems online. "If we can figure out who the 1 per cent are, which we did, then we can apply the filter more severely on that 1 per cent," he said.

Mr. Priebe began developing technology to monitor the virtual world in the mid-2000s. His brother Lance asked him to help develop safety mechanisms for Club Penguin, a children's game he was working on that was gaining immense popularity online. Club Penguin was purchased by Walt Disney Company in 2007 for $350-million (U.S.).

A key component of the game is a chat feature, but in Club Penguin's early years, there was no notable technology that helped make chat rooms safe for children, Mr. Priebe said. "Letting your kids go on online chats? That was just the craziest thing you could do," he said.

Mr. Priebe said the mechanism he developed involved a person analyzing the reports flagged by Club Penguin users. Fast-forward to 2016 and he sees a more efficient option with Community Sift.

Community Sift's software currently processes four billion messages a day on its many servers, analyzing the content for offensive material and labelling them in categories such as racism, sexism and vulgarity. The technology combines artificial intelligence with human experience. Every day, staff update the "markers" – or triggers – within the system to ensure that the software remains accurate and culturally relevant.

It also takes user history into account when monitoring for offensive language, to see whether the person behind the keyboard is a repeat offender or whether the offence was just a one-off. Companies are able to customize the technology to filter things based on their own policy.

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Mr. Priebe said his company does hear from critics who are concerned about infringement on freedom of speech, but he insists that his software does not do that. "Freedom of speech does not mean you are free from accountability. You still have to be liable for the things you say," he said.

Erin Buckels, a University of British Columbia PhD student focusing on personality psychology, was one of the authors of a 2014 study investigating the personality traits associated with trolling behaviours. The study found that people who enjoyed trolling positively correlated with measures of sadism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism.

Ms. Buckels said there is no easy technological solution to the problem of dealing with trolls. One of the best ways to deal with people with such personalities is to ignore them, if possible, she said.

"People are who they are," Ms. Buckels said. "If they think being cruel is fun, they're going to find ways to do it, whether that's in real life or online. Personally, I would rather see them do it online."

Mr. Priebe compares today's online trolls to the pesky viruses and spam e-mails of the early Internet years, things that were once extremely common but are now rare occurrences that manage to slip through complex and sophisticated programs.

Most of Community Sift's current clients are in the gaming industry, including Roblox, a gaming app aimed at teens, and WildWorks, the creators of the game Animal Jam.

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One of Mr. Priebe's ultimate goals is to one day work with large social media companies, such as Facebook and Twitter.

He said the software is currently available in nine languages and is used by companies around the world. The latest round of funding will go toward hiring staff and further research and development.

"Our goal is to remove those bullies from the Internet," Mr. Priebe said. "That's the crazy motivation behind it. That's why we get up in the mornings."

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