More internet regulation won’t make children safer online: EU official

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Child safety online is listed as one of the main priorities in the Digital Agenda for Europe, but censorship on the internet isn't the way forward, a top European Commission official said.

Many initiatives have been implemented to protect children online, including an industry-led coalition which includes the likes of BT, Facebook, Google, Microsoft or Vodafone.

The coalition commits several technological and media companies to provide wider options for parental control and to strengthen age-appropriate privacy settings.

This is the way forward rather than censorship, said Robert Madelin, director general the European Commission's DG Connect.

"Censorship is an issue which today in our society creates frontiers and is controversial. We are not going to legislate much in this. In this sort of area, I'm absolutely convinced that legislation will do a lot of harm and no good," Madelin said at a panel discussion at the College of Europe on 31 January.

"What we want is not just safety. It's not just to keep kids safe. We actually want the children in Europe to thrive; to become extremely happy, effective, able citizens," he said. "So the vision that Neelie [Kroes] and I are trying to push is a better internet for kids, crowding out the bad stuff and crowding in the good stuff."

Neelie Kroes is the digital agenda commissioner.

Madelin said that the bad things for children online have been identified – fatty food, advertising, alcohol and sex. But the good things online have not yet.

"So what we want for the kids on the Internet is going to be part of the debate about what we want in our society," Madelin stated.

However, zero risk is impossible, Madelin cautioned. In a world where the driver of the global economy is cross-border exchanges, the cost of diminishing freedom is higher than it ever has been in the past, he warned.

Safest thing in the world

In the European Parliament, there is also a sense of moderation and wariness that child protection can be used as a excuse for censorship.

Christian Engstöm, a Swedish MEP for the Greens party, argued that the internet was probably "the safest thing" that children may have ever come across because most of them have a parent around when they go online, and there is no physical violence as on the playground.

"But of course since the internet is full of people, all the people problems are there. Bullying for instance. Yes, it's a reality that kids do that to each other, but that is a human against human problem. It's the bullying that is the problem, not the internet," the MEP said.

"Are there then no problems with the Internet at all?" Engström asked, "Yes, I do see one big problem which is that well-meaning politicians use children as an excuse to carry out censorship."

"I'm positive that the intentions are good, but my concern is that this natural feeling that we all have that we want to protect our children as much as possible, that will result in us handing over a society minus the freedoms that we had when we were handed over society from our parents. Our parents and grandparents fought hard and long to secure these civil liberties; the right to information and private communication," Engström said.

Madelin backed the MEP, saying that the cost of doing too much and choking off freedoms is huge for a connected society.

"Only act decisively on children and the internet if you can identify an Internet specific problem. Otherwise, act cautiously as a society," the director general said.

The EU's Safer Internet Programme funds public awareness activities, actions for fighting illegal and harmful content online and actions promoting a safer online environment.

Today, young people and children are amongst the biggest user groups of online and mobile technologies in Europe.

Almost 15% of internet users who are minors aged between 10 and 17 receive some form of sexual solicitation, and 34 % of them encounter sexual material that they have not searched for.

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