IT was an upset porn-user who showed Rory Birkbeck that he was, in fact, doing a good job.
The man phoned with a problem: He was trying to access an adult entertainment website on his new Samsung cellphone but something called "Safe Surfer" was denying him access.
He'd Googled Safe Surfer, got Birkbeck's name and number and now demanded he unhook it.
Birkbeck, who co-founded the charity which supplies porn-filtering software, says it turns out the man had been stealing wi-fi off his next-door neighbour who'd just installed his freeware. "And he'd contacted the leader of the anti-porn campaign in New Zealand if you like. I had to say to him: 'Yeah, it's not your phone'... I didn't give him any solutions."
Birkbeck, 38, smiles because it's proof of Safe Surfer's success.
In three short years, the Zimbabwean-born tech specialist has made a full-time job out of keeping families safe from dark web dangers.
Safe Surfer is a social enterprise he developed alongside friend Aaron Sinclair. The Tauranga pair have over 400,000 people in 120 countries using their technology service.
The South African Law Reform Commission will hold discussions next month about strengthening laws to protect minors on the internet, and a legal advocate has vowed to push for their Android app to be enforced as a default on all internet-capable devices in the country.
The organisation is also be working on encouraging people to buy a smart device or Safe Surfer "wi-fi lifeguard" ($164.35), which plugs straight into your existing modem to instantly create a safe wireless hotspot within your home.
In 2014 Birkbeck was employed to do a national rollout of iPads across New Zealand for in-home based childcare provider Footsteps, and saw a market for an easy solution to protect children online.
He contacted Sinclair, and the two developed Safe Surfer in 2016. The idea is for children to navigate the internet "between the flags" blocking explicit websites that contain pornography, drugs, gambling and violence.
Right now, society is in a polarising debate around internet safety and Birkbeck says for the first time we're facing a situation where innovation has developed too quickly.
The terrorist attacks on two New Zealand mosques, which resulted in the deaths of 51 people, was live-streamed on Facebook and spread across numerous social media platforms before being removed.
Birkbeck says the footage snuck through because even with machine learning and image recognition, technology isn't at the point where it can classify content accurately in real-time, especially considering culture and context.
"All of the people that watched that content probably did so just because it was there and on offer, not because there weren't any warning signs against it.
"The ultimate answer is, how do we build a model where we're all engaged in content categorisation? Because it's not up to one organisation to decide 'this is what's right', it's ultimately up to us all, and I guess where these big tech companies have been able to push back, is against the legal framework."
It's big, confusing new-world and today's parents are the first generation to parent in a digital world, which doesn't differentiate between adults and children.
Social media sites have hundreds of millions of user-generated items being uploaded a day and have been accused of prioritising shareholder revenue over social conscience. Therefore, says Birkbeck, it's parents who must lead the change.
Safe Surfer allows parents to set time restrictions (which can also help with gaming addiction) and choose what material to block from 20 different categories.
It also enforces safe search options on Google and has a "stop/pause" button, which immediately shuts down the internet and takes all devices offline.
"Without a filtered search engine, accessing inappropriate content is easy," Birkbeck says.
"I still think about how many millions of kids are using Google a day in that unfiltered view."
In Tauranga, there was a case where an early childhood teacher typed "butterflies" into the search engine of her iPad and a pornography image popped up. She was able to shield the image from her students but quickly phoned Birkbeck for help, and he installed Safe Surfer on the iPad.
With his gentle demeanour, there isn't much Birkbeck can't help with, but notes that social media sites are still "black boxes".
"Even with YouTube Kids or YouTube-restricted, there's still stuff that slips through." An example is pop-up advertisements with sexualised content.
His advice to parents is to guide children from "dependence to independence" on the internet as well as teaching them to self-moderate screen time. "Mentoring is so important, so kids aren't just taken off by their peers and completely distracted."
There are ways to stop your teen deleting the Safe Surfer app on their phone (if they do, you'll get an email) and it will run on other wi-fi networks outside of the home.
Safe Surfer is also at a point of developing parental notifications around content searches and viewings of things like self-harm.
Before he started Safe Surfer, Birkbeck was teaching kids how to code, and is a big believer in the power for young people to create as opposed to just consume. "There's huge opportunities," he says. "But we've really got to navigate some of these big issues together. If some of these platforms don't move, there will be some good alternatives that will follow and challenge the status quo," he believes.
"I think ultimately we're in a big stage of movement and things like Christchurch are really going to push that ahead."
Times they are 'a-changin
BACK in 2000 the internet was still in its infancy and Google was just a baby, but Birkbeck, who graduated high school in the year of Y2K, saw career potential.
"I had a real passion from a pretty early age," he says. "I picked up a few programming courses early on … I went to Waikato and then came out as a mobile developer and then became a software developer."
He set up his own business, passing up an opportunity to go to Wellington and be part of the start-up of accounting software firm Xero. He did, however, buy shares in Xero, which he later sold. "It showed me that high value of tech start-ups and how New Zealand could have a real go."
He went on to work as an IT manager for Footsteps, and this experience coupled with visiting a Philippine orphanage and having his eyes opened to child sex trafficking, made him impassioned about protecting kids online.
For their efforts setting up Safe Surfer, he and Sinclair won Tech Innovator of the Year at the 2018 NZ Charities Technology Awards.
"I like to think we're doing our bit to solve some of those really big issues that are going on in our society," the dedicated Christian who is married with two young children says.
"We're really trying to help parents have a voice in this world that they currently don't."
Last year Safe Surfer released the children's book Keeping Safe on the Web with Kyle the Kingfish. The book, designed for children 6 and up, was produced with a grant from Tauranga City Council's Community Development Fund and a further grant from NetSafe enabled 10,0000 re-printings. Birkbeck says they've received "massive support" from the community.
"I don't think any non-for-profit can survive that first year without the funding. We never would have gotten off the ground." Safe Surfer is also supported by volunteers, one of whom is teenager Caleb Woodbine, who has written a desktop app for Safe Surfer and has managed to get it translated into six different languages.
The 19-year-old says what Birkbeck and Sinclair have achieved for Generation Z is not only beneficial but necessary.
"We're living in an age where having access to content such as pornography and other harmful content is rampant. You can be searching something incredibly innocent and 'oh, you get a malicious ad which is wanting you to chat with some random person on the internet', or be taken to a harmful site.
"There definitely needs to be something done with (educating) parents more. Often what I see is parents just let their kids do whatever. They don't understand technology, so why should it be their problem? But not necessarily in a careless way, they just don't know."
Birkbeck agrees, saying today's children are born with the ability to drive technology, but it's how we teach them to "intentionally create". "To teach them to watch or Google something isn't really teaching them something, in my opinion. In some cases, I think we have given out technology too freely and for what purpose?
"There's a lot to be said for the old-school books and ways of doing things, but there has got to be a blend - it'll be interesting how that does happen."
# What is Safe Surfer?
Blocks all harmful websites and enforces safe search options on Google and YouTube so pornographic material can't be accidentally seen. It's easy to use as there's no need to install or update software. Their app can't be overridden without a pin code, giving parents reassurance that their children cannot deliberately uninstall it. Furthermore, the Safe Surfer lifeguard device connects to your home modem, giving your family safe internet instantly. No tech skills required.
# To find out more, go to: www.safesurfer.co.nz