A Safer Internet for Children

Internet industry players are being asked to self-regulate to create a safer online environment for children. Hotlines for reporting illegal or abusive content; standards for classification of content, promotion of child-appropriate content and awareness-raising initiatives are among the ideas put forward. Targeted in particular are of course pornography, violence, and bullying.

No deadlines or specific requirements are being imposed – the European Commission has essentially presented a wish-list to industry, with vague and unspecific hints that top-down regulation may come at some point in the future if self-regulation doesn’t work.

This is laid out in a “Strategy” document recently presented by the Commission. Although the Commission considers the Internet is a useful educational and communication tool for children it considers it is nevertheless necessary to improve Internet safety for children since they are particularly vulnerable to certain types of exploitation, such as bullying and fraud, and at risk of viewing inappropriate content, notably pornography.

The Commission considers the Internet to be a useful educational and communication tool for children; however, it also considers it is necessary to improve Internet safety for children since they are particularly vulnerable to certain types of exploitation, such as bullying and fraud, and at risk of viewing inappropriate content, notably pornography.

The Strategy entitled “for a Better Internet for Children” is published in the context of the EU Agenda for the Rights of the Child, which underlined the long-term effects of not investing enough in policies protecting children. It also follows Council Conclusions on the Protection of Children in the Digital World from November 2011, which called upon the Commission to take action to ensure the online protection for children.

Since Member States have not come forward with a common solution to the problem, the Commission invites industry to self-regulate and if it fails the Commission will intervene and take regulatory measures. The actions outlined in the Strategy will be set up through a series of existing initiatives notably, the “Safer Internet Programme”, the “Connecting Europe Facility” and “Horizon 2020”.

Aims of the initiaive

The actions proposed include measures based on legislation, self-regulation and financial support aimed at promoting: (1) more appropriate online content for children and youth, (2) awareness about Internet risks and children online literacy, (3) children online safety and (4) the fight against child sexual abuse and exploitation.

Appropriate online content for children and youth

The Strategy would support interoperable platforms tools ensuring access to age-appropriate content; and encourage innovation in initiatives such as the ‘Best Children’s Online Content’ competition to improve the production of online content for children and the promotion of positive online experiences for young children.

Online awareness and online literacy for children

The Commission feels that children, parents and teachers need to be aware of the risks that children can encounter online; therefore the Strategy includes measures promoting:

1. Digital and media literacy and teaching online safety in schools
At the moment, online safety is included as a specific topic in most of education systems across Europe. However, the Commission believes it is insufficiently implemented and it will support implementation strategies to reinforce online safety.

2. Enhancing awareness activities and youth participation
The Commission will fund the creation of an EU-wide interoperable service infrastructure to support the Safer Internet Centres (public centres providing online safety information and public awareness tools) and revamp the European Youth Portal, in line with the EU Youth Strategy.

The goal of these measures is to increase awareness with particular attention to the youngest and most vulnerable children particularly disabled children.

3. Reporting Tools for Users
The Strategy includes measures aimed at reinforcing and simplifying reporting tools, these include facilitating cooperation within industry involved in self-regulatory agreements on reporting mechanisms and supporting the correct implementation of the Universal Service Directive (which requires Member States to make the “166 hotline” operational –a hotline that includes an emergency number for “missing children”). If industry initiative fails to self-regulate in this area, the Commission may consider regulatory measures.

A safer online environment for children

The Commission considers that it is important to implement measures that would prevent children from being exposed to harmful online experiences and possible resulting risks in the offline world. The Strategy outlines key measures as regards:

1. Age-appropriate privacy settings
Since children may not know how to change their privacy settings, the Commission is of the opinion that default privacy settings for children should ensure their safety. In this field, the Commission already proposed a new data protection regulation introducing the “right to be forgotten”.

In addition, the Commission will support R&D to develop technical means for electronic identification and authentication that enables the use of personal attributes (age in particular).

2. Wider availability and use of parental controls
According to the Commission, it is necessary to ensure the availability and use of parental control tools, with particular attention to the range of languages available. The Commission will support benchmarking and testing of parental control tools and R&D to develop the interpretation of age-rating and content classification by parental controls. Again the Commission may consider developing legislative measures if industry fails to deliver solutions in this area.

3. Wider use of age rating and content classification
One of the risks children face online is seeing inappropriate content, such as sexual or violent content. Commission’s ambition is to have an EU-wide age rating and content classification. The Commission will:
• Support the deployment of interoperable platforms to provide age-appropriate services
• Look into how best to improve the protection of minors in a Communication on online gambling to be presented in 2012.
The Commission will support self-regulation in this field but if this fails then Commission may consider regulation.

4. Online advertising and overspending
The Commission will aim to improve the enforcement of existing EU rules and encourage further self-regulatory measures to better protect children from inappropriate advertising and overspending (for example through accidental access to the Internet from mobile phones, gambling or gaming sites). The Commission will aim is to make sure standards for online advertising for children provide a sufficient level of protection.

Fighting against child abuse and sexual exploitation

1. Identification, notification and takedown of abusive material
The Commission will aim to increase the awareness of current reporting points (hotlines) to improve the detection and taking down of content on child sexual abuse found on the Internet. In order to do this, the Commission will support:
• cooperation between industry, law enforcements and hotlines (particularly INHOPE network – an international association of Internet reporting hotlines) to help citizens to report illegal content,
• R&D on innovative technical solutions for police investigations,
• Training for law enforcement.

Actions in this area will have to comply with the new Directive on combating child sexual abuse and pornography, the E-commerce Directive, data protection legislation and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU.

2. International cooperation on the fight against child sexual abuse and child sexual exploitation
As the Internet has no borders, international cooperation is considered essential and requires a global approach to address the issue of sexual abuse and sexual exploitation of children.  As part of its Strategy the Commission will therefore:
• encourage the INHOPE network of hotlines to increase its global membership,
• support the implementation of the Council of Europe Convention on Cybercrime
• work with international partners through structures such as the
EU-US Working Group on Cyber-Security and Cyber-Crime.