Web 3.0: Online Child Safety

Posted in child safety by coda on December 2, 2009

Anne Collier is a thoughtful and energetic lady – she is heavily involved with matters relating to Online Child Safety. I want to blog a series of posts based on the concept of Web 3.0 that she and Larry Magid are using in relation to online child safety. I am really excited by their project and would like all of you to chime in. Whilst I am an admirer of what my colleagues are doing – I must admit to some doubts about the heuristic value of the linguistic “turn” – Web 3.0. I want to leave this debate for another time. Today, my focus is on Anne’s post, which has the heading:

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child needs to embrace children’s online lives, and Internet-safety education needs to embrace the UN’s new holistic view of children as participants and stakeholders

Anne is right to focus on the Rights of the Child Convention. It is timely.

On 20 November 2009, the international community celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child by the General Assembly. The Convention, it is safe to say, reflects societal expectation that children merit particular care and attention to their safety and well-being.

To my mind, the Convention already provides the foundation for society’s obligations to children in both online and offline environments. One of the questions, Anne seems to suggest that all of us should seriously explore, is whether, the principles and norms embedded in the Convention, itself formulated in a ahistorical context ought to embrace the environment in which many of the children now populate, particularly those in societies that have developed information communication services and infrastructures.This may appear to be an obvious and logical type of question we should ask and have answered, given the increased role that the Internet and communication technologies play in our lives and those of our children. It is also a very profound question. I am not sure how one could respond in a meaningful way to this question. Anne suggests that we should have a framework for  online children’s rights [the link to Online Safety 3.0 was not working at the time of the post]. These are the right to:

1. Physical Safety (freedom from physical harm)
2. Psychological Safety (freedom from online cruelty, harassment, and exposure to potentially disturbing material)
3. Reputational and Legal Safety (freedom from unwanted social, academic, professional, and legal consequences that could affect one for a lifetime)
4. Identity, Property, and Community Safety (freedom from theft of identity and property and attacks against one’s networks and online communities at local, national, and international levels).

Before one concludes that Anne is somehow advocating a form of “technological determinism” it is worth noting the thrust of the point she is trying to put across:

“What this Internet-safety taxonomy is really saying is that all the rights and freedoms the Convention calls for [for] children need to be transferred online. They must enjoy these rights in cyberspace as well as in the rest of their lives.”

I could not agree more with this statement. There is more.

Derek Wyatt MP, has written a letter to Ban Ki-moon:

“For this reason, and in partnership with a number of interested organisations in the UK and abroad, I have drawn up a petition which calls upon the UN to work in cooperation with legislators and civil society to examine and assess whether the Convention on the Rights of the Child fully addresses the needs of children in the digital age. Please note that it is not our intention to re-open the Convention – rather, we seek clarification that young people should enjoy the same rights and freedoms online as they do offline under the present convention, and that this forms part of a signatory’s reporting obligations.”

You may, if you wish, sign the petition, which provides as follows:

“On behalf of the children of the world, we, the undersigned, ask the United Nations to examine and assess whether the Convention on the Rights of the Child fully addresses the needs and expectations of children in the digital age.”

Anne suggests that we can provide the Convention with a contemporary framework by adding the following words: “online as well as offline.”

I am not sure what these words add, or for that matter, what an online bill of rights might contribute to the question regarding the applicability of the obligations and rights under the Convention to the subject of the child’s safety and well-being in the online environment. In fact the question posed by Anne, and the petition drafted by Derek, is that the answers they and the FOSI seek, is dependent on the application and implementation of the Convention to an important aspect of children’s daily activities. It can be argued that the Convention already extends its framework to the needs and expectations of children in the information society – lack of transparency and enforcement undermines much of the force of the Convention (NB Not unique to the online environment). There are a number of provisions in the CRC that underscore this expectation and the 4 key rights Anne identified earlier. Article 19 of the Convention provides as follows:

1. States Parties shall take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of parent(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the child.

2. Such protective measures should, as appropriate, include effective procedures for the establishment of social programmes to provide necessary support for the child and for those who have the care of the child, as well as for other forms of prevention and for identification, reporting, referral, investigation, treatment and follow-up of instances of child maltreatment described heretofore, and, as appropriate, for judicial involvement.

Signatories to the Convention are regarded as discharging some of their obligations in safeguarding children. For example, Article 35 provides that States shall take all appropriate national, bilateral and multilateral measures to prevent the abduction of, the sale of or traffic in children for any purpose or in any form. Article 33 indicates that States Parties shall take all appropriate measures, including legislative, administrative, social and educational measures, to protect children from the illicit use of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances as defined in the relevant international treaties, and to prevent the use of children in the illicit production and trafficking of such substances. Article 34 provides as follows:

States Parties undertake to protect the child from all forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse. For these purposes, States Parties shall in particular take all appropriate national, bilateral and multilateral measures to prevent:

(a) The inducement or coercion of a child to engage in any unlawful sexual activity;

(b) The exploitative use of children in prostitution or other unlawful sexual practices;

(c) The exploitative use of children in pornographic performances and materials.

These provisions should not be seen as creating discrete set of rights for the offline environment. Rather, the Convention can be seen as providing an overarching set of normative foundational principles that remains “technologically neutral”. If what I am suggesting is plausible, then the answer to the question that Derek poses in the petition can be answered by asking and answering this related question:

“To what extent do Governments fully reflect, in their laws and policies, the needs and expectations of children as enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, appropriate for the creation of a fair and just information society”

Anne and her colleague Larry have got us thinking seriously about advancing the online child safety debate. From what I learnt from her thoughtful post, is that the real governance challenge, it appears is one of developing effective and imaginative strategies and policies, that enable the Convention’s principles to be applied to a range of contexts and issues.

There is a real need, particularly now, to create processes which ensure proper implementation and enforcement of the Convention’s norms and principles. The practical responses and strategies are, needless to say, also dependent on the particular aspects of techno-cultural convergence. For the moment, whilst I share the sentiments of the FOSI project and Web 3.0, I must remain a friendly skeptic.

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