A grand vision


On 2nd May the Commission of the European Union published a very important document. It is entitled a “Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions”. The short title on the full document is “European Strategy for a Better Internet for Children”. Alternatively, according to the Commission’s press release, it should be referred to as Digital Agenda: New strategy for safer internet and better internet content for children and teenagers.” 

Apart from the novel multiple choice of inelegant, over lengthy titles, both of which appear to have abandoned the indefinite article, I have to say the substance of the Commission’s new text provides a truly excellent survey of the landscape of online child protection. It neatly summarises where we are now and also paints quite a detailed picture of where we ought to be heading. 

Now calm down. We musn’t suspend all of our critical faculties or get too carried away. They’ll only get big-headed. And let’s not forget there’s many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip. A statement, sorry a “Communication”, is one thing. The actualité may turn out to be something else.

Plus a road map

Better and better. Helpfully the document also includes a road map. I counted 73 different action points distributed between three classes of actors: the Commission itself, industry and Member States. The list of actors is too narrowly focused but I will return to that towards the end of the blog. Also the timescales associated with the road map are a little vague. They will definitely need refining.

As far as I could see none of the proposals contained in the document are original but what is completely new and absolutely marvellous is the way hitherto disparate strands of policy from across several different Directorates have been gathered in to a single place and woven together into a new and stronger platform. The whole is undoubtedly greater than the sum of the individual parts. It’s a real silo-buster.

One little alarm bell

The area where undoubtedly the strategy document is weakest, however, is in terms of spelling out, or rather not spelling out, the organizational and institutional arrangements which will underpin its implementation. Given the number and magnitude of some of the declared goals this could be a fatal flaw.  

I was wondering. Are such things dealt with inside the Commission by a different process, a process which obviates the need to set out that type of detail in a document of this kind? I sincerely hope the explanation is something like that.

What I am trying to push from my mind is even the faintest suspicion that the Commission believes it can carry this off with broadly the level of resourcing and the organizational arrangements that they have now.

Perhaps someone high up imagines industry, for example, will spontaneously, without further prompting or significant help, organize itself in such a way as to deliver on many or even most of the targets set against their name.  If anyone is harbouring such thoughts they are egregiously mistaken. The reality police will shortly be knocking on their doors. Charges of criminally unworldly optimism will soon be made out. 

But there is also another reason why I feel a little anxious about the housekeeping elements. The press release referred to earlier is graced by the presence of three different EU Commissioners. Vice President Neelie Kroes, Commissioner for the Digital Agenda, goes first. Vice President and Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding is second and common or garden Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom of Home Affairs brings up the rear.

Clearly at one level it is fantastic that such senior figures wish to be actively associated with this area of policy. But three Commissioners, which also means three Cabinets and three Directorates, inevitably introduces a level of political and organizational complexity which implies….. Well it implies many things some of which are very far from good. The scope for hostile forces and their lobbyists to start mixing it, making mischief, attempting to drive in wedges, delay or confuse things, is legion.

The nascent, brave inter-disciplinary path which the Communication represents could founder on the rocks of bureaucratic inertia and the sort of responsibility avoidance habits which can so easily flourish within any large organization where overall responsibility for an area of policy is less than completely clear. Online child protection’s Great EU Helmsperson is who?

Arguably there should also have been a fourth Commissioner’s name on the document: Michel Barnier, the Commissioner for the Internal Market and Services. The strategy document quite rightly talks a lot about e-commerce. It alludes to how different approaches to online child safety might impact on the emergence of a single market in a number of key areas. But I am guessing that adding an extra Commissioner to the mix does not increase the degree of complexity and the associated risk of failure simply by a factor of 1. It’s likely to be a non-linear equation.

For some time now we have had within DG Justice a Children’s Rights Co-ordinator as well as a more broadly-based Inter-Service Group on Children’s Rights but, at least until this paper emerged, it has been difficult to detect much evidence of collegiality and one wonders how much they had to do with writing it anyway. Properly located and adequately resourced management structures do not mean success is inevitable in any endeavour, but their absence can be a near certain guarantee of failure.

Apart from that Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?

Turning to the strategy document in more detail we see straight away that it contains a great deal of useful data and evidence about the need to act. It also presents an overview of the uneven levels of development of online child protection policy at national level among EU Member States. As already mentioned, the paper then knits together all of the EU’s current initiatives in the field. If nothing else, this makes it a very useful reference point.

The document speaks of the need to develop an “eco system” which will support children’s participation in and beneficial use of cyberspace. Whilst acknowledging the pioneering work which several bits of the Commission have undertaken in the past it goes on to recognise that they

…..have not been combined in a coherent framework.

Just so you don’t miss the point

EU policies so far have not sufficiently recognised that children constitute a specific target audience for the internet…..Europe needs a strategy that will prevent market fragmentation and create a safer richer environment for all EU children online.

Bang on. The document then makes a major strategic point

It is proposed to combine a series of instruments based around legislation, self-regulation and financial support. Legislation will not be discarded, but preference will be given to self-regulation” 

I think we may need to revisit this when we see the denouement of the current processes surrounding the CEO Coalition. I am currently in the midst of a mild depression about the likely outcomes, hence my earlier remarks about unjustified optimism on the part of Commission officials. We shall see. I hope I am wrong. My faith in self-regulation has taken quite a battering these past months. 

The four pillars

The eco system the paper says future strategy will be based on is founded on four pillars:

High quality content online for children and young people

This is further sub-divided under two headings. The first is about stimulating the production of appealing creative and educational online content.

The second addresses positive online experiences for “young children”. I’m not sure if “young children” as opposed to “young people” slipped in there by mistake or if it was intentionally meant to shift the focus on to tiny tots. I’m relaxed either way but it’s an interesting thought.  What happened to the “teenagers” who were mentioned in at least one of the annunciations? 

There is also a reference not simply to teaching children how to use different online applications but also how their digital skills might lead them to becoming actively engaged citizens. Bravo. I might have liked also to see a mention of encouraging more children to learn how to make their own applications. Many of our most successful internet businesses were kicked off by guys who essentially were programmers. 

Stepping up awareness and empowerment

In this section three sub-headings appear: digital and media literacy and teaching online safety in schools comes first, followed by scaling up awareness activities and youth participation. The document then refers to the importance of simple and robust reporting tools. The latter is one of the “Kroes 5 points” so I assume it appears in the strategy document largely for completeness but also to remind everyone it isn’t going away any time soon.

Creating a safe environment for children online

This is the largest individual pillar. It is also where, presumably for the same reason, a further three of the Kroes 5 points appear: wider availability and use of parental controls, age-appropriate privacy settings and the wider use of age rating and content classification.

I have no problem at all with the last of this list of three. I am certain there is a lot more that can and should be done in relation to content classification, where assigning an age rating will be a big part of it. Not the only part. Yes people will want to know if a particular web page contains images or other materials which are not suitable for, say, typical 5 year olds, but they might equally be interested to know what it’s actually about e.g. is it full of racist bigotry or is it about cookery? 

There is probably a great deal sites can also do with technical tools to help in terms of speedily checking out whether content has been correctly classified or determining if it is in breach of their terms and conditions. 

In that regard we need urgently to start thinking about apps as content and look at the efficacy of the different ratings systems that are being developed for that specific market. But what I hope no one is thinking about is trying to treat user generated content as if it is the same as the output of Disney, the BBC or Hustler magazine for that matter. 

I appreciate this might raise difficult questions about definitions. Maybe we will need a new body of some sort which can adjudicate on such matters where there is doubt or a dispute, but it would be absurd to tie ourselves up in semantic knots and perhaps delay everything interminably on the grounds that we might otherwise discriminate against commercial enterprises as compared with private individuals. As someone whose name escapes me once said 

I can’t define an elephant but I would know it if one walked into the room 

In other words all we may be able to do is set out broad principles. How they work in practice will come down to a finding of fact. Case by case. This is pretty much how advertising regulators have operated for years. Any suggestion that content must be pre-moderated and approved or classified before it goes up would be a step too far.

Fighting against child sexual abuse and child sexual exploitation

This is the fourth pillar of the new strategy and also the fifth and final Kroes point to feature in the document.

Here there are two sub-headings. The first concerns the faster and systematic identification and take down of child sex abuse material. However, it has to be said that in this instance the principal obstacles are generally not to be found within or near the internet industry.

We do not know how swiftly every hotline turns around reports and hands them to the police. We do not know this because mostly their work is not audited and reported on in that way. The commonly held perception, however, is that slow take down speeds are mainly linked to under resourcing police services in those countries where law enforcement insist they retain sole responsibility for issuing the notices to remove illegal material.

The second sub-heading in this section refers to the international dimension to work in this area. There are several top class proposals plus a reference to an important aspect of policy that came up many times in the debate about the Directive.

This concerns the EU’s activities as a giver of aid to non-EU Member States or in relation to its trade and tariff negotiations with non-EU Member States. The EU’s powers and activities in foreign relations and diplomacy generally are also relevant in this context.

If a particular non-EU country is proving difficult or uncooperative and illegal images are remaining on public view on servers within their jurisdiction beyond any reasonable timeframe, the suggestion is that the EU should make improving that country’s performance in terms of speeding up take down times part of any bi-lateral aid package or trade and tariff deal. Does this mean yet a fifth Commissioner must now enter stage left?

Roll of drums

Although I made the point earlier that you would struggle to find anything in the document that was wholly original, equally I hope it is also clear that it would be wrong to think of it as being simply a reiteration or embellishment of the Kroes 5 points. Its cross-cutting nature is remarkable.

I was particularly pleased to see, for example, references to children and young people being made in the context of online advertising and overspending. Radical stuff. Finally this area has been recognised as being within the ambit of online child protection.

It doesn’t stop there. There is also a mention of the Commission’s intention to

…..propose a pan-European framework for electronic authentication that will enable the use of personal attributes (age in particular) to ensure compliance with the age provisions of the proposed data protection regulation

The latter is a reference to Commissioner Reding’s draft regulations on data protection published earlier this yearIn that draft a big play is made of age verification principally in relation to the privacy agenda. Link age verification with privacy and e-commerce and we are moving from radical to revolutionary.

It makes perfect sense. Privacy issues do not arise in a vacuum. Of course there are major aspects of the privacy debate that are not in any significant way tied in with e-commerce, the citizen’s relationship with the state being the most obvious example. But a great deal is intimately bound up with online business practices in one way or another.  I’m thinking in particular about how online behavioural advertising and location based services operate.

Keeping questions about age verification, privacy and e-commerce in separate compartments makes no sense at all in the real world. By contrast making the connections and linkages in the way the strategy documents does feels  like a major, liberating, breakthrough moment.

The blueprint

I mentioned how the road map assigns tasks either to the Commission itself, industry or Member States. So who is missing from that list? For one thing there is no mention of civil society or any other key players.

To be fair within the document there are many references to parents and children.  The strategy would nonetheless have felt more rounded if it had been imbued with a dynamic sense that parents, children and the NGOs that work with them could also be active agents or potential partners, not only benefiting from the activity being promoted but also helping the Commission deliver it.

I go back to a point I made earlier. Expecting some parts of industry to look at this with joy in their hearts is naive. Appealing to the good nature of CEOs, mixed with a little judicious sabre rattling about possible legislation, is what we have had up to now. But at the end of the day that approach turns this whole enterprise into a private, almost incestuous power play: a question of who will blink first. Big industrial beasts face off big bureaucrats.

Maybe that is what Commissioners believe is the reality. If it is, with the resources, above all lobbyists, at industry’s disposal, always ready to play into an ever present potential to stir up anti-Brussels sentiment in the media in Member States, or mix it in the European Parliament, I wouldn’t bet the farm on the outcome.

Thus I have no doubt the Commission needs to find ways to build real alliances within wider society, alliances which will help it achieve the objectives it has set itself, alliances that will help Member States feel they want to join in as enthusiastic collaborators. Against such a background there has to be a constructive way in which Members of the European Parliament, NGOs and other social institutions can be made part of the project. Leaving them on the sidelines as spectators or passive recipients of Euro bounty is a big mistake, or at any rate a major lost opportunity.

Given the EU’s current preoccupations, dealing with the economic meltdown, the crisis with the single currency, rows over budgets, I don’t underestimate the difficulty of doing that. But the first step has to involve recognising it is the right way to go.

About John Carr

John Carr is one of the world's leading authorities on children's and young people's use of digital technologies. He is Senior Technical Adviser to Bangkok-based global NGO ECPAT International and is Secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. John is now or has formerly been an Adviser to the Council of Europe, the UN (ITU), the EU and UNICEF. John has advised many of the world's largest technology companies on online child safety. John's skill as a writer has also been widely recognised. http://johncarrcv.blogspot.com
This entry was posted in Advertising, Age verification, Consent, Default settings, E-commerce, Location, Privacy, Self-regulation. Bookmark the permalink.

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