EU, tech firms join forces to protect children on the Internet


This article is part of our special report Innovation and the Digital Economy.

The European Commission joined forces with major technology firms including Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft yesterday (1 December) to improve the protection of children online.

The coalition, which includes 28 companies, will develop an age-based online ratings system and aims to strengthen privacy settings. It also plans by the end of next year to make it easier to report inappropriate content.

Other measures include improving parental controls and enhancing cooperation among law enforcement and hotline authorities to remove online material showing sexual abuse.

"This new coalition should provide both children and parents with transparent and consistent protection tools to make the most of the online world," said Neelie Kroes, the EU commissioner who deals with digital technology policy.

The formation of the coalition follows a report by the European Commission in June, which found 14 leading social networking sites, such as Facebook, inadequately protected children's profiles and data.

British-based group Childnet International, which aims to protect children online, said the coalition was a good start.

"We welcome this initiative and we are hopeful of what it might achieve," said Childnet International Chief Executive Will Gardner. "We are looking at a statement of purpose, this is the beginning."

Many children become active online as early as seven and 38 percent of 9- to 12-year-olds have their own social networking profiles, according to EU research. Over 30 percent of children access the Internet via a mobile device and 26 percent via video game consoles.

Other companies in the coalition include Apple, BSkyB, BT, Deutsche Telekom AG, Nintendo, Nokia and Orange

Parents' digital illiteracy

The European Commission has been pouring a lot of money into awareness-raising campaigns addressing parents and teachers, who often fail to see the hidden risks of the internet or are simply unable to prevent them, due to their own embarrassing digital illiteracy.

55 million euros has been invested by the EU executive into projects aimed at making the Internet safer for children, but these have yet to yield concrete results. On top of this, a dedicated EU agency, ENISA, was set up with the purpose of increasing security of information networks with a yearly budget of around eight million euros in 2010 and 2011.

Nevertheless, Eurostat figures reveal that almost one third of Europeans encountered viruses or other computer infections between 2009 and 2010, despite the fact that more than four out of five Europeans use security software.

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

Since 2004, the Commission has been funding the annual Safer Internet Day, which has a 55-million euro budget. On 2009's 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.

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 "making 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 materials for children, parents and teachers and gather evidence of illegal content.

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