Child safety online is taken up by the European Parliament

Labour Party

The Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI), an international organisation who has been working for many years now on how to make the internet a safer place for children, organised a conference earlier in the week. Held in the European Parliament, I was pleased to be one of the panelist in a wide-ranging discussion.

The European Commission’s has recently released a Communication on online safety that includes a road map for action over the next few years.  The Communication seeks to give children the digital skills and tools they need to benefit fully and safely from the digital world.  It plans to do this by getting the Commission, Member States and the online industry to get together on various proposals that would “build up the market for interactive, creative and educational content online”. (Read the full communication here)

The computer and mobile phone industry was well represented as were NGOs and policy makers. All sides were in general agreement that the  European Commission’s proposal was a positive development in tackling this important issue. While I believe that what the Commission is proposing is encouraging, I remain uncertain as to whether it will be enough.  The Commission clearly wants industry to regulate itself, only stepping in with legislation when it fails to do so.  Although I heard a number of very promising things from the various people from the industry who were there, I still feel there is room for the Commission and indeed the European Parliament to get involved.

My main area of concern is that the varying approaches across the EU mean that children have different levels of empowerment and protection online.  The European Union has meant that our national borders have become, at the very least, less rigid, and the internet completely ignores them.  That is why I support my colleague Silvia Costa’s suggestion in her recent report on this subject for a single framework directive on the rights of minors in the digital world.

We will never be able to completely guarantee the safety of children, either online or out in the world, but we should set a standard across the EU the member states and the internet and mobile technology industry have to abide by.

Desiderata – A New Blog on Child Protection

Labour Party

 Child security and the distribution of child abuse images online is a very important issue.  You may remember me blogging about the use of internet blocking last year (read the blog here).  A very useful resource in finding out about this subject is a relatively new blog called Desiderata (Latin for ‘things you desire or need).  

I should say that the blog is written by an old friend of mine, John Carr, who I have known for many years.  As well as an old friend though, he is a world expert in the field of child safety and security online, as an adviser to the British Government and the United Nations.  Further more, John is an executive on the European NGO Alliance for Child Safety Online and is Secretary of the UK’s Children’s Charities’ Coalition on Internet Safety (made up of NSPCC, Action for Children, Barnardo’s and many more). He has also provided advice for Microsoft, MySpace and Google as well as a number of the UK’s leading mobile phone service providers.  John was also the worthy recipient of an OBE for services to child security online.  So you can see he is well placed to offer advice and analysis on many of the problems that worry many parents and people responsible for young children and teenagers.

The blocking of internet sites that contain child pornography is one of the first issues that John tackles on his new blog.  If you would like to read a well written and thorough defence of blocking and a debunking of the arguments against then please click here, I highly recommend it.  He writes with clarity, never overly technical so even relative laymen like me can understand, and has a mastery over the subject matter, not surprising given his unparalleled level of expertise in this area.  Blocking was recently voted on in the Parliament’s Civil Liberties committee, and it did not go the way he or I would have hoped.  I was happy that most if not all UK MEPs were in favour blocking, but perhaps if a few more MEPs from other delegations, particularly Germany, had read John’s blog, we may have got a better result.

Apart from that I think we can expect a high level of discussion about all current issues and debates surrounding the important subject of child security online.  In his most recent posts John talks about the possibility of Internet Service Providers doing more to stop children accessing inappropriate material.  He suggests solutions that I think would definitely meet the approval of any parent or carer who reads it.  I’m sure we will see a lot more like this in the future.

Protecting Children Online

Labour Party

In March, a proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and the Council on combating the sexual abuse, sexual exploitation of children and child pornography was published by the European Commission. It is now being taken up by the Committee on Civil Liberties in the European Parliament, and the two committees that I sit on, the Committee on Culture and Education and the Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality, will be writing an opinion on it. This document, it is hoped, will lay the foundations for a new forward-thinking approach to tackling child safety online, incorporating provisions on the blocking of internet sites that display abusive images of children and on the need to punish those who ‘groom’ children online. It is also a proposal which, in some respects, has caused a great deal of controversy amongst certain human rights groups.

To debate this upcoming piece of legislation, a conference was organised last Thursday in Scotland House, Brussels, bringing together experts from NGOs, the European Commission, and the European Parliament. John Carr, a Board Member of the European NGO Alliance for Child Safety Online (eNASCO), was first to take the floor. He presented eNASCO’s agenda for creating a safer and fairer online environment for children, suitably dubbed ‘The Right Click’. Mr. Carr stressed his support for the EU’s proposals on combating child abuse on the internet, and spoke out against those who claim that blocking will be ineffective, that it will undermine our human rights, and that it will lead us towards enhanced political censorship.

EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, Cecilia Malmström, agreed with him. Despite having only taken up her post in the Commission three months ago, she has already made extensive progress in her department, notably in the field of the protection of children online. During her presentation, and later in a panel discussion between John Carr, Birgit Sippel MEP and Roberta Angelilli MEP, she emphasised that the crimes committed by adults online are of a truly horrible nature and that there can be no justification for suggesting that blocking unwanted websites now will lead to political censorship later. What this new piece of legislation will bring, she said, is better protection for potential victims, increased penalties for perpetrators, and a broader policy framework. It builds upon the advice that children’s rights groups and activists have been giving to political leaders for years.

As a regular blogger and member of the Committee on Culture and Education, I believe that the internet offers a fantastic opportunity for learning, creativity and social interaction, and this is an opportunity from which children, too, should be able to profit. As adults, it is out duty to support children and young people and encourage their new discoveries. We should be treating them first as active participants in the new digital age before we treat them as victims, and help them to develop a sense of digital censorship and responsibility.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to ignore the fact that with all the advantages of the new digital age, the internet has brought with it some negative consequences. Many of these concern children, who are most vulnerable of all to abuse. The recent publication of the Proposal for a Directive combating the sexual abuse and sexual exploitation of children is a huge step forward for the European Union. This is a document that in my view must have the maximum possible support across the whole of the EU, and I for one am wholly in favour of it.