InfoCommons

Protecting children using the internet[1]

Posted in child safety by coda on April 30, 2009

This is a follow up to the post on the Meeting on 5th May here.
The Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on the Proposal for a Decision of the European Parliament and of the Council establishing a multiannual Community programme on protecting children using the Internet and other communication technologies represents the latest in a series of initiatives introduced by the European Parliament and Council to promote children’s safety and well-being in the information society.

There are a number of aspects in the Opinion that interest me. For example, the Opinion
recommends an international partnership approach which encourages information sharing amongst various stakeholders, including governments, law enforcement, financial institutions, child welfare and support organisations, Hotlines and information services providers. In addition to multi-agency information sharing, increasing public awareness of the scale and types of violence against children and greater use of reporting mechanisms are seen as an important part of the governance strategy. The meeting on the 5th May needs to be regarded as part of a general attempt to provide a framework for the development of a governance model that can be used by stakeholders across the world.

The Committee is clearly aware that considerable work is still needed in harmonising legal rules on child abuse and sexual exploitation amongst member states. Not surprisingly, the Committee advocates the use of the political platform to enhancing cooperation amongst governments and stakeholders in promoting initiatives reducing the number of sites hosting illegal or inappropriate content relating to child sexual abuse.

What are the “harms” identified by the Committee? Essentially, they involve ‘contact’, ‘content’ and ‘computer misuse’ risks:

a) Direct harm, as victims of sexual abuse documented through photographs, films or audio files and distributed online (child abuse material).

b) A perpetuation of victims’ sexual abuse by the repeated viewing of the records of their abuse due to widespread online distribution and global availability.

c) Direct contact by predators who will befriend them in order to commit sexual abuse (“grooming”).

d) Victims of bullying in the online environment (“cyber-bullying”).

The Committee has also taken on board the concerns raised by the Internet Watch Foundation in its 2007-8 Report. Many of the calls for practical measures seem to be prompted by the statistics gleaned from the IWF Report:
a. 2755 child sexual abuse websites hosted internationally during 2007;
b. 80% of these websites are commercial operations; and
c. the transborder characteristics which make detection, investigation and prosecution complex and costly.

The 2008 Report should also be consulted. The BBC provides a potted account of the report.
Some interesting points from the Opinion:
1. The United States has been identified as one of the primary sources for “the regional hosting of child sexual abuse networks suggests the majority of this content is hosted in the US”. I am a little puzzled why this has become an issue given the cooperation between the US and the EU in such matters.

2. “ Lack of international efforts by domain name registries to de-register domains advocating the sexual abuse of children or providing access to such content.”

3. There are some lingering issues in terms of substantive harmonisation of the laws amongst Member States. Implementation and enforcement of the Council of Europe Cybercrime Convention at National level on issues like what constitutes “child sexual abuse” material and the relevant “age” group for the purposes of protecting victims of child sexual abuse material will need to be re-visited. The Committee notes:

“2.7 Although certain Europe-wide standards have been established, clarifying legal issues through various recommendations and directives, it should be established whether this data has been converted into practice throughout member states.
2.8 “Harmful” content refers to content that parents, teachers and other adults consider to be potentially harmful for children. Definitions of such content vary across countries and cultures, and can range from pornography and violence to racism, xenophobia, hate speech and music, self-mutilation, anorexia and suicide sites. As such, the EESC acknowledges it is difficult to establish international partnerships regarding such material but that national efforts could be made to raise awareness of tools, methods and technologies to protect children from exposure to it.”

2.12 However the EESC would ask for definitions and legal clarifications in respect of the words “harmful” and “conduct”, particularly considering transposition into national law. Further clarification is also required on the role of Hotlines, which do not investigate suspects and do not have the necessary powers to do so”

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