Children and the Internet: Commission poised for incisive action
The European Commission estimates that 75% of European children use the Internet, one third of them through mobiles. The many challenges posed by this reality have prompted the development of a comprehensive strategy.
The European Commission recently presented a new European Strategy for a Better Internet for Children. The positive picture that emerges from the Communication (which covers every person below the age of 18) is that of a Commission ready to intervene, including legislatively, in numerous areas in which the specific situations and needs of minors online are at stake.
One strategy, four pillars
Following the structure of the document, the first prong concerns ‘High-quality content online for children and young people’. The Commission promises in particular support for inter-operable platforms for tools ensuring access to age-appropriate content (e.g. through white lists and child-friendly browsers). The Member States should improve mutual coordination and match certain parameters concerning the quality of online content destined for children.
Secondly, the Commission aims at ‘Stepping up awareness and empowerment’. The Member States will have to strive for the introduction, by 2013, of ‘online safety’ in school curricula. The Commission will also finance the establishment of an EU-wide inter-operable service infrastructure to support the ‘Safer Internet Centres’. With regard to ‘reporting tools’, the Commission will evaluate legislative measures if the initiatives of the operators do not produce the expected results. The industry should activate an EU-wide mechanism to allow children to report easily and effectively harmful content and conduct.
The third prong of the Strategy is about ‘Creating a safe environment for children online’. A particular mention should be made of parental controls, for which the Commission will consider possible legislative measures, if self-regulation in the relevant sector does not prove to be satisfactory; and to the proposal for a pan-European framework for electronic authentication. As for classification on the basis of age and content (online games, pornographic images) the Commission will support ‘inter-operable platforms’ for age-appropriate services, but it does not rule out legislative interventions in case of unsatisfactory outcomes. The industry is also invited to consolidate an ‘EU approach’ to age-rating and content classification, following the successful PEGI system. As regards online advertising and overspending, here too the Commission is ready to act at the normative level.
Finally, the Commission refers to the area of ‘Fighting against child sexual abuse and child sexual exploitation’. The EU will, for instance, support research on innovative technical solutions for the identification and matching of online materials containing sexual abuse of minors and to remove them and prevent their re-uploading. It will also adopt a horizontal initiative on ‘notice and action procedures’ for all categories of illegal content, including, in this case as well, sexual abuse of minors.
On the basis of the Strategy, the Commission will establish a system of benchmarking of national child online safety policies and actions and monitor self-regulatory agreements.
The advisability of bold interventions
The role played until now by the EU regarding the protection of children online is laudable (e.g. the Safer Internet Programme, Directive 2011/92/EU). It is encouraging to see that the Commission does not intend to relent, with a further battery of incisive initiatives already looming on the horizon. The presentation of a strategy also facilitates a more coherent and less episodic approach. This line deserves full backing, as younger generations have the right to access an online environment that provides them with opportunities and new perspectives, without having to pay the price of dangers and threats (including those related to the excessive impersonal ‘virtualisation’ of human relations). The Communication makes it quite clear that the online sector, or at least part of it, is in need of ‘loud and clear’ signals, as measures are at times questionable and half-hearted. Parents also need to be fully involved and be provided with more awareness and greater skills, as the lack of them can compound the difficulties of monitoring the activities of their children online. The area at issue should find fertile ground in the Council and the Parliament and this should provide the Commission with the necessary determination to present as soon as possible a set of sufficiently ambitious proposals, aimed at making the Internet a better place for its most vulnerable visitors: children.