Contemporary Child Protection on the InternetJutta Croll
Child protection must cover all areas of children’s lives, a safe everyday life in the real world as well as growing-up well with media. When article 19, 34 and 36 of the UN-Convention on the Rights of the Child demand the protection of children from violence, sexual abuse and exploitation, these rights nowadays must be interpreted and applied in a new way in regard of risks arising from or being reinforced through the internet. But how could contemporary child protection on the internet be envisaged? What are the preconditions for children using the internet for information and participation, for education and play, without being unreasonably endangered? What role does the protection of children’s data play in this regard?
In the early years of the internet filter programmes were seen as an appropriate tool. Yet, software that identifies certain content based on word lists and blocks access to it, was initially not developed to protect children from violent or pornographic content. In fact, the purpose was to prevent staff in companies from surfing on certain improper websites during work hours. The filtering of the content was based either on word lists or on lists of domain names or URLs . Though from the beginning, this type of filter software was accompanied by the accusation of censorship. The legitimate interest to prevent access to certain types of content for child protection reasons was perceived as a potential gateway to further reaching limitations to the right to freedom of information.
The debate, whether filtering of content is an adequate means of contemporary child protection, is also mirrored in the change over time of the naming of the respective software products. In the decision of the European Parliament on establishing a multiannual Community Programme for promoting safer use of the internet and new online technologies, published in 2005 (854/2005/EG), filtering technologies were named explicitly as an instrument for tackling unwanted and harmful content. In the implementation of the programme, the EU Commission released a call for tender for a benchmarking assessment of such technologies and commissioned the task under the title SIP Benchmark. The first benchmarking report, released by Deloitte in 2009, was followed by a second call for tender in the same year. Therein the software products intended for assessment were termed „Parental Control Tools“, which considerably less suggests an association with censorship of content. The new term also gave higher priority to parents’ responsibility for the protection of children on the internet. The tests in the following two benchmark studies, (SIP II und SIP III), therefore were more focused on supporting parents, and other persons responsible for children, in their educational tasks. In addition to the effectiveness of the filtering, the tools’ security against circumvention, their additional functionalities and their usability were assessed as well. For many products good filtering results could only be attested in regard of English language content with a sexual connotation. The tools are less effective in detecting violent or otherwise problematic content and they often by mistake block access to unproblematic content. Simultaneously to their efforts to improve the filtering, the companies developed their products further and added functionalities to control and restrict times of access or to monitor the children’s internet usage - some of the tools even allow to do so remotely via a second device in the hands of the parents.
Since the middle of the 2000s, new options for communication and production of content via the internet emerged, collectively known as Web 2.0 and ‚User Generated Content’. Today, mainly social media applications provide the platforms for interaction between users. Technical tools for child protection, which filter the content based on a word list or domain lists, can neither handle the huge amount of user generated content nor are they able to address the risks resulting from the users’ interaction comprehensively. Herein lies a new potential for endangerment of children that massively challenges contemporary child protection. The technical tools designed for child protection often cannot keep pace with the rapid innovation of digital applications.
In article 3, the UN-Convention on the Rights of the Child gives highest priority to the best interest of the child, in all decision making processes concerning the child. Article 5 obliges the signatories to respect parental rights and demands from the persons responsible for the education of a child „to provide, in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child, appropriate direction and guidance in the exercise by the child of the rights recognized in the present Convention. “ For many parents and persons responsible for children’s education it is very difficult to decide what an appropriate manner of guidance, consistent with the evolving capacities of the child, would be with regard to the child’s internet usage. The I-KiZ - German Centre for Child Protection on the internet has dealt with that question and developed the Intelligent Risk Management Model. Contemporary child protection is based on three pillars ‚Design and Content of the Service’, ‚Technology’ and ‚Media Literacy’. Depending on the age of the child these pillars can bear different weights. For younger children technical tools provide higher protective effects, as the children grow older their media literacy develops and their individual responsibility becomes more important. For adolescents their ability to manage risks on their own should be trained by media literacy education and should be supported by the design of the services themselves. The abilities to decide on their own and to weigh risks develop individually and depend on personal maturity and conditions. Especially with regard to the internet and the usage of digital media it is necessary to provide orientation for parents. They are very often less acquainted with digital world, usage of social media platforms and digital services than their children. Thus they need technical tools for protection but also pedagogical recommendations that act as guard rails for safety.
On May 25th 2018 the General Data Protection Regulation comes into force in Europe (EU-GDPR) , regulating the collection, storage, and processing of personal data. In recital 38, the specific protection needs of children with regard to their personal data are acknowledged for the first time. Article 8 accordingly regulates the conditions applicable to a child's consent in relation to information society services. For children below the age of 16 years, the GDPR requires consent given or authorised by the holder of parental responsibility over the child for the usage of information society services offered directly to a child. Simultaneously, the GDPR allows member states to set by law a lower age for those purposes, provided that it is not below 13 years. Across Europe stakeholders from media education, research, data protection authorities and technicians dealing with authentication and age verification are concerned with the question, which age threshold might be reasonable and appropriate. The project children’s-rights.digital and the coordination office for children’s rights at the German Children’s Fund ‘Deutsches Kinderhilfswerk’ are currently holding dialogues with experts, in order to build a knowledge base for the various questions regarding child protection and children’s rights arising from the GDPR. We thereby intend to contribute to contemporary child protection on the internet and to provide guard rails for the safety of children on the internet. We will keep you in the loop regards the results of the dialogues here - stay tuned!
The World is Changing - About Growing-up in a Digital EnvironmentJutta Croll
In 1989, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (UN-CRC) was adopted by the United Nations. To this day 195 states have ratified the Convention, making it the United Nations’ most widely recognized human rights document. The Convention is meant to grant special protection to young people under the age of eighteen. The ratifying states commit themselves to implement and guarantee the rights to freedom and protection as laid down in the 41 articles of the treaty.
Human rights are granted to everybody, regardless of their age. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is based on the assumption that it is essential to the well-being of children under the age of eighteen to emphasise and protect their rights and to provide the framework for their implementation.
Coinciding with the elaboration process of the UN-CRC, Tim Berners-Lee developed the World Wide Web at the CERN Research Centre in Geneva. The code, initially designed for the exchange of information among researchers, has made the usage of the internet possible for everybody. Today more than 3 billion people worldwide are connected to the web and are using online services on a regular basis, one third of them being under the age of eighteen and thus children in terms of the UN-CRC. In Germany, according to the KIM- and JIM-Studies , 97 percent of the children aged six to 19 years have access to the internet at home. Hence, there can be no doubt about the already significant impact of digitisation on the everyday life of children, both in a positive and a negative way.
The agreements of the Convention on the Rights of the Child are related to all areas of lives. They grant certain rights to children and set a regulatory framework to warrant that entitlement. For some paragraphs, for instance the right to freedom of expression (Art. 13) and the right to access to information (Art. 17), the impact that digitisation has on the availment of the rights defined therein is obvious. For other paragraphs it is necessary to scrutinise what consequences the digital environment of children has on exercising their rights to freedom and protection, or to ask how digitisation provides grounds for a broader understanding of these rights. Among the latter is the right to express their own views, as laid down in Art. 12. The appropriate consideration of the child’s opinion in all matters affecting the child can be considerably simplified by means of digital media. Children’s capacity to develop and express their own positions towards certain issues increases with their age. Online participation platforms can support and accompany this process of learning and personal development, thereby making the voices of children of any age heard. The rights of the child to freedom of association and to freedom of peaceful assembly, as defined in Art. 15, can also be exercised by children in various ways via the internet and social media platforms, regardless of their place of residence or social background. Likewise, digital media provide new possibilities to enhance the right to education through educational resources online. Nowadays, children exercise their rights to rest and leisure, and to engage in play and recreational activities, as laid down in paragraph 31, to a growing extend via digital services. The building regulations in most German states explicitly stipulate the establishment of children’s playgrounds, often equipped with an age threshold for children up to fourteen, in order to provide a protected areas for leisure time. In the digital environment such offers specifically designed for children under a certain age, often described as Walled Gardens or Sandboxes, are seldom to be found and so far there is no obligation to create such safe areas.
Paragraphs 19, 34 and 36 demand the protection of children from all forms of (physical or mental) violence, sexual exploitation and sexual abuse. Today, this protection must also be interpreted with regard to risks that are emerging or reinforced through the internet.
Even in the light of digitisation, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child retains its high relevance and the best interest of the child has the highest priority. It is not necessary to amend the UN-CRC with new paragraphs relating to children’s life in the digital environment. Rather, the existing agreements need a new understanding adapted to the digital environment children are living in and substantiated, where appropriate, by a ’General Comments’ General Comment. Current technological developments of digitisation, materialising in connected devices like toys or clothes collectively known as the ‘Internet of Things’, emphasise the necessity to monitor the preconditions for the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.