Child protection on the Internet


The protection of children online has become an EU priority as lawmakers wake up to the risks of social networking sites and ramp up the fight against child pornography.

In the past decade, the European Union has made progress on coming up with ways to protect children from harm on the Internet.

Since the ratification of the EU's Lisbon Treaty in November 2009, legislators have enjoyed greater power to write laws on criminal enforcement and sanctions, which has fed into policymaking to combat child pornography on the Internet in particular.

EU Justice Commissioner Cecilia Malmström issued a draft proposal in April 2010 which would block access to sites containing child pornography, an idea the German government has said it will oppose (see 'Issues').

The European Commission has launched several awareness-raising campaigns since 1999, the most recent initiative being EU Commissioner Viviane Reding's 'Think Before You Post' event in February 2010.

At the 2009 Safer Internet Day, 18 web firms signed the EU's Safer Social Networking Principles agreement, brokered by the European Commission to improve online safety for under-18s. Two more companies joined the agreement later that year.

The agreement contains a number of measures that web firms have pledged to take, including "providing an easy to use 'report abuse button' [which will] allow users to report inappropriate contact from or conduct by another user" and "make sure that full online profile and contact lists of website users who are registered as under-18s are set to 'private' by default".

In addition, EU Safer Internet Centres have been set up in each member state to develop awareness-raising material for children, parents and teachers and gather evidence of illegal content.

Most recently, EU justice ministers asked the European Commission to examine whether the bloc should pool its Internet investigative powers into one single cybersecurity agency (EURACTIV 28/04/10).

The majority of Europe's youngsters who go online are regular users of social networking sites such as Facebook, according to a recent Eurobarometer poll.

According to EU data, social networking sites currently have 50 million European users, most of whom are children, teenagers or young people.

The dangers posed by social networks to children are potentially great. Not only do they speed up communication, they also allow users to be located more easily, explains a report issued by ENISA, the EU agency for network and information security.

Maps provided on mobile phones, for example, allow users to find and locate their friends and get directions to places, but this poses new threats to privacy or even security, the agency warned.

European teenagers are barely aware of the privacy issues raised by such websites, according to EU figures, and 50% of them do not hesitate to give out personal information on the Web, which can remain online forever and can often be seen by anybody.

In 1999, EU leaders began forging agreements to promote safer use of the Internet, in particular its use by under-18s.

Ten years on and the European Commission is showing an increased interest in protecting children online, especially since the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty has afforded lawmakers greater decision-making powers on criminal law enforcement.

Social networking

Faced with this widespread social phenomenon, the Commission has shown an increased interest in protecting citizens and consumers' privacy. Social networking websites have been singled out on many occasions as potentially dangerous for inexpert users.

Although social networks have shown a willingness to address privacy issues, the Commission is worried about many shortfalls which still prevent minors on social networking platforms from having a completely safe experience, according to a report published by the EU executive in February 2010.

To address naive usage of social networks, the EU institutions launched a 'Think Before You Post' campaign.

"If we want children to think before they post, social networking companies should post the right information using the right language," underlined EU Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship Commissioner Viviane Reding.

Facebook, which is the biggest social network in Europe, has come under attack for not fully protecting minors whose profiles become accessible by default (EURACTIV 09/02/10).

Across the pond, US senators have called on Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's founder and chief executive, to reverse changes to the site made in April 2010 that allow users' information to be shared more widely and with third-party websites.

Measures against child pornography online

The EU faces internal strife on a month-old proposal to block access to child pornography on the Internet (EURACTIV 30/03/10).

"If the police can confiscate leaflets, books, and videos with child pornography, it should also be able to shut down sites. The Internet is not a safe haven for criminals," argued Cecilia Malmström, the EU commissioner for home affairs.

However, Malmström has come under fire from many factions in the EU, most notably German MEPs who would prefer an outright ban on pornographic content of children.

"I expect a broad debate in the upcoming discussions in which I shall be representing the principle of 'removing [child porn sites] instead of blocking' and lobbying for as broad support as possible in the Council and in the European Parliament," said German Justice Minister Sabine Schnarrenberger.

Child grooming

MEPs have long been calling for online grooming to be outlawed. Grooming refers to adults who deliberately try to befriend children online to sexually abuse them at a later stage.

"'Grooming' and paedophile chat rooms on the Internet should be criminalised and sex crimes should be subject to extraterritorial legislation," the European Parliament said in a 2009 report.

The MEPs' report - which called for the criminalisation of "all types of sexual abuse of children" including 'grooming' (the act of soliciting children for sexual purposes) - was approved with 591 votes in favour, two against and six abstentions.

Malmström's recent proposal to tackle child pornography would criminalise "new forms of sexual abuse and exploitation facilitated by the use of the Internet," such as grooming or viewing child pornography without downloading the incriminating files.

Winding road towards an EU cyberwatchdog

In addition, EU ministers meeting in April 2010 asked the European Commission to assess whether it should set up a centralised agency on tackling cybercrime to prevent online fraud and child pornography.

Previously, monitoring of online fraud and malicious content was carried out by the European Network and Information Security Agency (ENISA), located on the Greek island of Heraklion, the home of the Greek Foundation of Research and Technology.

The decision to put ENISA on Heraklion caused many problems and has attracted widespread criticism.

"Heraklion is not a capital city and flight schedules, especially in winter, are limited, requiring a stopover in another city (usually Athens). Travel time is between seven to 10 hours each way, which results in an average time of up to three days for each event or meeting," read a critical report by a panel of experts appointed by the Commission to assess the island's suitability for the agency.

Upcoming efforts to set up a new agency against online fraud and child pornography will likely experience a few stumbling blocks as traditionally large member states, like Germany, France and the United Kingdom, have opposed the establishment of an agency that would tread on the toes of operations in their own country.

Though observers doubt that their position will have changed by the time the EU releases a proposal on the centre late this year, the outcome of negotiations on the agency remains to be seen.

"If we want children to think before they post, social networking companies should post the right information using the right language. Last year the European Commission urged companies to act, and I am glad that many have heeded this call," said EU Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship Commissioner Viviane Reding.

"However I expect all companies to do more. Minors' profiles need to be set to private by default and questions or abuse reports have to receive quick and appropriate responses. The Internet is now vital to our children, and it is the responsibility of all to make it safe," the commissioner added.

Italian MEP Roberta Angelilli (European People's Party), a vice-president of the European Parliament and representative of the European Forum on the Rights of the Child, warned that many social networks allow easy access to information about underaged users, often simply by using a search engine.

"Homepages should contain a link to a complaint facility covering data protection issues for both members and non-members," reads an opinion from a group of privacy experts at the European Commission.

"Personal data published on social network sites can be used by third parties for a wide variety of purposes, including commercial purposes, and may pose major risks such as identity theft, financial loss, loss of business or employment opportunities and physical harm," reads the opinion of an EU working group known as the Article 29 Working Party.

"Users are often not aware of the size or nature of the audience accessing their profile data and the sense of intimacy created by being among digital ‘friends’ often leads to disclosures which are not appropriate to a public forum. Such commercial
and social pressures have led to a number of privacy and security risks for SN members," reads a paper by the European Network and Information Security Agency.

  • 25 Jan. 1999: EU adopts multiannual action plan on promoting safer use of the Internet.
  • 29 May 2000: EU leaders sign agreement committing to combating child pornography on the Internet.
  • 22 Dec. 2003: Member states agree to common principles on combating sexual exploitation of children and child pornography.
  • 11 May 2005: EU establishes second multiannual programme on promoting safer use of the Internet and new online technologies.
  • 4 Jul. 2006: Commission paper: Towards an EU strategy on the Rights of the Child.
  • 22 May 2007: Commission paper: Towards a general policy on the fight against cyber crime.
  • 10 Feb. 2009: 17 social networking sites, including Facebook, MySpace and Bebo, sign a European agreement on Safer Social Networking Principles.
  • 9 Feb. 2010: Commission launches 'Think Before You Post' campaign.
  • 29 Mar. 2010: Commission tables proposal on blocking websites with child pornography.
  • 28 Apr. 2010: EU justice ministers ask Commission to explore creation of cyber security agency.

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