Change Agent

Chris Priebe of Two Hat Security is building a business to fight online trolls

This entrepreneur is applying the lessons he learned co-founding kids-only social network Club Penguin to help combat abuse and bullying online

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Two Hat Security founder Chris Priebe

Two Hat Security founder Chris Priebe. (Portrait by Darren Hull)

Four years ago, Priebe started a venture dedicated to the dream of a bully-free Internet. The recipient of $2.5 million in funding this year, Two Hat Security now boasts troll-free global communities for clients and an A-list board. Priebe also works with police, analyzing digital messages and images. His goal is to one day be able head off attacks before they happen.

“We moved a lot as kids. If you weren’t born in a small town, good luck fitting in. I was down in Osoyoos, B.C., in my Grade 10 year and I saw that there were other kids that didn’t fit in, so I created a club. Well, the bullies didn’t like that, because I was empowering the people they were picking on. So they started targeting me specifically. They’d come outside my house at 10, 11 o’clock at night to call me out. Eventually, the police notified my parents that there was a legitimate threat against my life, so I had to go away to a private school in Alberta.

“When it comes to the Internet, it’s not like physical bullying, because it doesn’t end at 11 or 12 o’clock at night. And [victims are] not only excluded by kids at school. The first reaction of parents is, ‘I’m going to take away your cellphone. I’m not going to allow you to be on Facebook.’ Suddenly, the victim loses all the opportunities. They can’t socialize.

“My brother Lance introduced me to the Internet when I was in Grade 12; that would be in 1994. It was incredible to me. All of a sudden I was connected to the entire world; all these possibilities came up. Around 1999 and 2000, Lance was experimenting in his basement with this idea of creating a game with characters that would be able to walk around and talk to each other online. His prototype was a bunch of penguins walking around on ice. He asked me, ‘Would you build out the back end for this system to make it really safe?’ Together, we created [children’s virtual-world video game] Club Penguin, which set the bar for having a safe and yet positively engaged online experience.

“After Disney bought Club Penguin [in 2007, in a deal worth US$700 million], they got me to do their application security. I took the knowledge that I had been learning about how people hack websites, and how to go about creating defensive systems, and looked at how it could be applied to online social interactions. I came to realize that only a small number of users were using the Internet to make others feel miserable and to degrade them. I realized that if I could identify who those maybe 1% of Internet users were, I could then apply a different level of security to their interactions. That’s the premise behind this entire company.

“Fast-forward four years, we’re now under contract to process four billion messages a day. We work with Animal Jam and Roblox, some of the biggest games and communities on the Internet. We’d really like to have conversations with YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. A time is coming when people will no longer put up with these companies letting users be attacked when they’re just trying to enjoy themselves on the Internet.

“In some [high-profile cyber-bullying] cases, or technology might have averted the outcome. I had the chance to meet the mother of Amanda Todd [the 15-year-old B.C. girl who died by suicide in 2012 after being harassed and blackmailed online], an amazing woman. I was able to see how we could have helped in that situation. Ultimately, the big, hairy, audacious goal of our business is to remove bullying from the Internet.”