The European Commission rewarded yesterday (11 February) the best creators of online content for kids as part of the celebrations of the tenth Safer Internet Day, yet cybercrime is growing and is increasingly targeting children.
A Czech website offering kids recorded fairy tales and online games is among the winners of this year's EU-sponsored competition to encourage people to make the Internet a safer place for kids.
Similar initiatives have been carried out for a decade, since the first celebration of the Safer Internet Day by the European Commission. But despite the hypes of the communication campaigns, results are still seriously missing in the battle to make the Web more kid-friendly.
"I am particularly worried for the growing sophistication of malware and for the sexual exploitation of minors," acknowledged Troels Orting, the director of the EU Cybercrime centre, announcing the results of the first year of action of the centre.
He mentioned 'sextorsion' (blackmail for sexual exploitation) among the new risks which youngsters face online, and openly said that what is known about online sexual abuses of minors "is only the tip of a iceberg".
One of the Vice Presidents of the European Parliament, Cristiana Muscardini, asked the European Commission to change its policy against cybercrime and to better protect children over the Internet.
"More effective measures are needed," she said in a statement yesterday, where she mentioned the results of a study conducted in Italy on behalf of 'Save the Children' which shows that 81% of interviewees consider the Internet the main tool for sexual relations between adults and minors.
The Commission strategy to stem the worrying growth of the phenomenon has so far been based on mere self-regulation.
Neelie Kroes, the commissioner in charge of the dossier, has promoted campaigns to raise awareness among citizens, and has "encouraged" ICT companies to "voluntarily" introduce tools to better protect children online.
To date, only 31 tech companies have agreed to make available such tools as easier parental controls or age-appropriate privacy settings.
The fight against the wider phenomenon of cybercrime, which spans from privacy abuses to financial frauds and fully-fledged cyberattacks on strategic infrastructures, is also very far from being won.
Cyberattacks on institutional websites or on virtual storages of sensitive data used to be the subjects of fictional stories, but nowadays have become a matter of daily news.
Even during the presentation of the first report of the EU cybercrime centre on Monday (11 February), the websites of the European Commission went down for about a hour. A Commission spokesperson could not explain what happened and confined himself to say that "the security director was not aware of any attack". Doubts remain.
Were it a hacker attack or a simple server problem, it would not change the reality that cybercrime is becoming more widespread despite the EU and national initiatives to counter it.
"Criminals will continue to be creative and deploy sophisticated attacks to make more money, and we must be able to keep up with them," reads indeed the statement of Home Affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmström issued for the first anniversary of the EU cybercrime centre.
This certainly does not help the growth of e-commerce or Internet-based services, as strongly recommended by the European Commission, but many of the hurdles make the EU market a work in progress rather than an achievement.
And the situation may get worsen as fraudsters are shifting their focus on one of the fastest growing and borderless online service: cloud computing.
"The hacking of cloud services becomes more and more interesting for criminals. It is expected that criminals will increasingly aim at hacking such services for the purpose of spying, retrieval of credentials and extortion," says the Commission in its press release on the cybercrime centre.
The celebration of the annual Safe Internet Day is part of the European Commission's efforts to promote a safe use of the Internet as laid out in a 1999 action plan. The plan put the emphasis on self-regulation by the Internet industry and encouraged schemes to monitor harmful content such as child pornography. The first Safer Internet Day was celebrated in 2004.
In May 2012 the Commission set out a European Strategy for a Better Internet for Children which remains based on a self-regulation approach.
This approach has been preferred to straight regulation, as enforcement of rules would have proved extremely difficult with regard to sites set up on the other side of the globe which most of the time are anonymous, goes the Commission argument.