Local app to give social media a G-rating

Bhapi social media offering aims for safety first then user controls later so people can make their digital intake nutritious and non-toxic

Mick Esber, developer and CEO, Bhapi
Mick Esber, developer and CEO, Bhapi

Australian software developer and cybersecurity expert, Mick Esber, will this September launch the beta version of bhapi, a safe social media platform he has developed for Apple and Android.

The app will help people set content boundaries for themselves or their children and will be available by subscription for $5.50 (US$4) per month – or less if they accept advertising. 

“We’ve created bhapi to be a safe place for sharing and receiving content that is AI-reviewed, human-moderated, and with a commitment to never share your data with third parties,” Esber told CMO

The safe social media app was partly prompted by Esber wanting a safe space for his family to use social media and also by the way the Covid-19 pandemic and social media have exacerbated mental health issues.  

The beta version will offer a G-rated, safe space for public messaging. Esber will invite users to try it for free and ask them for feedback as to how they want to use it and what’s needed to do that. The plan is that bhapi will later give users classification warnings and tools to tailor their feed. 

“I think the wind is changing, that regulation’s coming and that people will be willing to pay for it [a safe platform],” said Esber. “The analogy is when Foxtel and Netflix first came to Australia, everyone said no one will use it because people are accustomed to free-to-air TV. I think that’s what’s happening with these [SM] platforms too. People start off with these products and then realise ‘if the product’s free, the product is me’. That’s problem one.” 

Who's willing to pay

As well as the $5.50 bhapi subscription, there will be a pull-marketing subscription where people can opt in to ads by choosing business sectors, products or services or brands they want to see. Esber saw potential for subscribers to use the app for free or get paid for accepting more advertising. 

A 2020 survey by remote access technology firm, Twingate, found that although 46 per cent of social media users were concerned about the safety of their personal data, most users (71 per cent) were happy with the usual model where social media is ‘free’ and run on profit from ads targeted to their personal information. Another 29 per cent disagreed and wanted a different model.

Yet the same survey found 60 per cent of users were still 'somewhat willing' to pay to use social media if it meant platforms wouldn’t collect, store or sell their data to third parties. Younger users were the most likely to want this, including 64 per cent of Generation X and 60 per cent of millennials. The survey also found users were prepared to pay between US$4.50 and USS5.30 for Facebook not to deal in their data, and slightly less for other platforms. 

Part of Esber’s motivation to self-fund this project has been that he wants to say yes to his children using social media. He highlighted parents of teenagers and younger children as his biggest market.

Surveys sampling 1000 people nationally showed 40 per cent of Australians would pay for a safe space. Mothers of very young children or younger women who plan to be mothers were found to be the most worried about social media wreaking havoc on their families. 

“Problem two is the assumption that freedom of speech is ‘freedom of reach’ by people who say horrible things to everyone in the world,” Esber continued. “Whereas if I walk into a pub and shout profanities, I get thrown out - right? There's social norms in the real world that need to exist within these apps.” 

Another motivation for Esber’s work on bhapi was the experience of his sister, who works with people with disabilities and was harassed and bullied off social media where she expressed the opinion people who work with people with disabilities should all be vaccinated. 

Nearest competition

Esber's vision is his bhapi platform is the first among privacy apps to help social media users not only avoid poisonous posts but also take positive control of their digital consumption. Some other privacy apps such as Yubo are sufficiently concerned about cyber-bullying to introduce ‘Muted Words’, a feature which enables users to block words, emojis or phrases they find upsetting. 

According to Esber, the closest app to bhapi so far for the general public is privacy app, MeWe, which offers free and US$4.99 a month premium versions. But he claimed it does not offer the moderation promised by bhapi. 

“With MeWe, you don’t get ads... But they’re not stopping trolling and not stopping bad behaviour. To do that ... is difficult, costly, and it [moderation] takes time.   

“You can’t post immediately, that’s one of the challenges. What we’ve implemented is AI as well as human moderators to speed up that process,” said Esber, adding the expectation is to get lag down to about one minute.

Read more: Privacy and security the focus on Safer Internet Day 2021

Bhapi’s moderation will remove from the G-rated public space anything that does not fit ‘General’ classification – the same standards met by TV broadcasters. People would still be able to speak freely to people they know via direct messaging. If direct messages need context, these would be tagged as adult content, racist or hate speech, violent, untrue, biased or sexist so users can choose whether they want to open it or not. 

“Knowing what it is before you open it is a good thing. If your mate sends you adult content, opening that in your workplace or the bus is not acceptable but opening it in your lounge room is,” Esber commented. 

On that level, bhapi is not dissimilar from Google’s Jigsaw project, Perspective, designed for publishers to identify toxic comments and use options from offering readers instant feedback on the toxicity of their comments to giving readers the power to filter conversations based on the level of toxicity they are prepared see. 

A second stage of bhapi’s development will see classification of all content adhering to America’s Child Online Privacy Protection rules (COPPR). COPPR classifications include protection against trolls, bullying and grooming, which platforms such as Facebook avoid by requiring their product be used by people 13 years and older. According to Relationships Australia, one in five young Australians experience bullying online. 

By late next year, Esber aims to have developed tools for users to adjust and control their feed and messages.  

This passion project has taken up all Esber’s spare time and much of his colleagues’ and friends’ during the past year, while he held a full-time job as head of technology at Wontok, a cybersecurity company. Today, bhapi has a team of three full-time programmers and part-time support staff.

The public beta release is expected later this year in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Ireland and South Africa. 

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