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Published 06.11.20

Children's rights and Internet Governance

Jutta Croll, Stiftung Digitale Chancen

The first phase of the virtual IGF ended on Friday this week. Out of the broad range of pre-events and workshops two sessions highlighted children’s rights and their protection in the digital environment.

On Tuesday the British 5Rights Foundation organized the Pre-Event #11 Digital Cooperation and Children’s Rights. Speakers were Baroness Beeban Kidron, Prof. Sonia Livingstone, OBE, Dr. Amanda Third, Jutta Croll, Tarique Kenny and Prof. Olga Khazova as a member of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, co-chairs of the Working Group.

The session centered on the report released by UN’s High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation “The Age of Digital Interdependence” in June 2019. The report makes 5 sets of recommendations, among those to “Protect human rights and human agency”. The High-level Panel dedicates a reasonable part of its report to the rights and the safety of children in the digital environment, particularly referring to under 18s as making up one-third of all internet users worldwide. Since January 2019, concurrently to the HLPDC, a group of child rights advocates led by the UK-based 5Rights Foundation has been working on General Comment No 25, which outlines the relevance of the UNCRC with regard to children’s rights in the digital environment. A public consultation of the draft General Comment was started by the UN Committee on the Rights of the child in August and is still open till November 15, 2020. Baroness Beeban Kidron gave an overview on the two parallel developments and an introduction to the working process. Then Sonia Livingstone explained more in detail the necessity to address all areas of children’s rights with such a general Comment since the digital environment is deeply entangled with children’s lives. Evidence came from Amanda Third who had led the participation of 709 children from 28 countries around the world in the elaboration of the General Comment and presented some of the findings.

In the well-attended session the interrelatedness between the General Comment and the HLPDC’s recommendation 3B: “In the face of growing threats to human rights and safety, including those of children, we call on social media enterprises to work with governments, international and local civil society organisations and human rights experts around the world to fully understand and respond to concerns about existing or potential human rights violations”, was discussed. Overall about 50 experts with various backgrounds took part in the debate. Non-discriminatory access to the digital environment is a human right and also a pre-condition to exercise other rights like freedom of expression and access to information. Tarique Kenny, a youth representative from South-Africa stressed the need to ensure fair, inexpensive and reliable access to the Internet. On the African continent the lack of safe spaces for accessing the Internet is a real issue for young people he pointed out.

Olga Khazova underlined the timeliness of the General Comment when the importance of the digital environment has become more evident than ever during the pandemic. Children’s rights to protection, provision and participation have gained growing relevance in Internet Governance over the now fifteen years the IGF was held, as Jutta Croll explained. Therefore there is an obvious demand to operationalize the recommendations from the HLPDC now with a child’s rights perspective.

On Wednesday the Dynamic Coalition on Child Online Safety held their session on “Lessons learned from the Pandemic: child rights and safety”. The session addressed the situation the COVID-19 Corona pandemic has put the world’s population in and the consequences in regard of children’s rights. Evidence has shown for some time that exposure to risks to children increases when they spend larger amounts of time online. These could be in the form of undesirable contacts made through online games, exposure to unsuitable content or dubious purchase offers. So the crisis brings to mind the protective rights under UNCRC Art. 17 (protection of minors in the media), Art. 19 (protection against commercial exploitation) and Art. 34 (protection against sexual abuse).

Statistics of the German helpline “Nummer gegen Kummer” show an increase in children and parents seeking counselling during the crisis. Parents reported being overwhelmed by the situation, not feeling up to properly guide their children when being online and not having answers at hand to deal with inappropriate content and contacts of their children. Children on the other hand felt lonely and neglected at home, not being able to cope with the demands of online lessons from school and being afraid of losing contact with their friends.

Based on the evidence of an increasing amount of child sexual abuse material (csam) provided in a presentation by Cathal Delaney from Europol speakers in the session pointed out the need for better protection of children. Participants to the session referred to an interim regulation currently before the European parliament to maintain the legal status quo for platform providers using tools like photoDNA to detect csam. Not accepting the interim regulation would put children even more at risk once the European Electronic Communication Code enters into force on Dec. 20, 2020. Speakers also highlighted that fighting child sexual abuse material on the Internet is neither related to censorship nor to mass surveillance.

The session concluded with a reference to the General Comment on children’s rights in regard of the digital environment and stressed the necessity to respect, protect and fulfil children’s rights in the digital environment especially in the light of the ongoing pandemic and its consequences for children’s lives.

On Monday Nov. 9, 2020 the Internet Governance Forum starts its second phase with more sessions related to children’s rights and safety on the agenda:





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