Child-proof the Internet or face regulation warns EU Commission
By Benjamin Fox
The European Commission has threatened to table a comprehensive set of child internet safety rules if the software industry fails to self-regulate to protect children online.
Unveiling its "European strategy for a better internet for children' on Wednesday (2 May), the Commission said that with 75% of children regularly accessing the web, targeted measures were needed to protect them online and improve digital literacy.
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Among its proposals, the EU executive has called on the IT industry to draw-up an EU-wide mechanism allowing children to report harmful content, age-appropriate privacy settings, and make stricter use of age rating to prevent children from accessing violent or pornographic material online.
But it warned that it would propose binding legislation "if self-regulation fails to deliver".
In January, a group of the world’s leading information and communication technology firms launched an industry Coalition for a Safer Internet for Children and Young People. In it they set out plans to develop panic buttons and a “report trigger” by mid-2012 to make it easy for parents and children to report harmful content.
In their mission statement, the coalition claimed that they would work to “ensure that children and young people obtain the greatest benefit from new technologies, while avoiding the challenges and risks which are of concern to people worldwide.”
The move by the Commission is an attempt to respond to rising concerns among parents and policy-makers that light-touch online regulation is failing to combat on-line bullying and grooming on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter as well as child sex abuse on the Internet. In 2010, a report by the IWF identified over 16,700 instances of child sexual abuse content on the web, while a survey conducted by the EU Kids Online project reported that 4 in 10 children had communicated with strangers online, been exposed to dangerous content or suffered cyber-bullying.
There are also fears about new online services, particularly with tablet phones, that pose new threats to child safety. The market for mobile phone apps, which are widely used by under-16s, and which has been described as a regulatory 'wild west', was a €5bn industry in 2011 and is expected to soar to €32bn by 2015. Meanwhile, new software such as geo-location can be used to trace a child's location.
The Commission also demanded swift implementation by industry of legislation aimed at combating child sex abuse and pornography, as well as e-commerce and data protection rules, citing IWF evidence that over 40% of websites promoting child sex abuse were hosted in either Europe or Russia.
Launching the strategy with fellow Commissioners Viviane Reding and Neelie Kroes, Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström commented that "young people are particularly at ease with the use of the Internet but they are still vulnerable to online threats."
She added that it was vital to "reinforce cooperation at European and international levels to combat cybercrime, and especially the most horrible acts such as sexual exploitation."