Online Protection of Underage Users

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Open Forum 14

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[Read more session reports and updates from the 14th Internet Governance Forum]

Children are avid users of the Internet and mobile technology today, and for many of them, there is no clear distinction between the online and offline world. The problems of online protection of under-aged users, and how to use these policies smartly, was covered in the session organised by the Cyberspace Administration of China.

Even though children are encountering new forms of risks that did not exist before the Internet, and some are being harmed by those whom they do not know in real life, most violence children encounter is done by those they do know in real life.

Images of child abuse often depict very young children, many of whom may not have access to the Internet. This was most apparent after the publication of a NY Times article that shocked many with its report that about 25 million child abuse images are reviewed annually. Ms Jasmina Byrne, (Chief of Policy, Office of Global Insight and Policy, UNICEF) encouraged policymakers to consider more seriously what makes some children particularly vulnerable. The questions posed to speakers and attendees were: Does this happen because of the Internet or because of the lack of something in their real life? Are we as adults doing enough? And, what models of appropriate behaviour do they have to learn from? In all, one must consider that the root cause is not necessarily online, by considering that there may be greater risks if they are isolated, lonely, or do not have support at home.

Ms Zhang Jiyu (Executive Dean of Future Rule of Law Institute, Renmin University) noted that children of this generation rely much more on the Internet for advice than going to their peers, as previous generations did. Zhang emphasised the role of parents, positive parenting, and the responsibility of society to create a safe online space for children. Overall, Zhang does not see a solution to online child abuse in blocking children from the Internet.

A successful policy response to the problem would include appropriate laws be in place and all actors in society doing their best to follow them. Some technological solutions that were considered during the session included using facial recognition to estimate minors’ ages, but it was also recognised that this brings numerous other questions about privacy to the discussion. Filtering and monitoring software that can be used by parents and school institutions was another technical solution suggested. According to Zhang, it is also advisable to strengthen supervision of public spaces, such as libraries and Internet cafés.

Germany has another approach in youth protection, as described by Mr Bernd Holznagel (Professor, University of Münster). EU member countries are obliged (according to the EU Audiovisual Media Services Directive) to create legal themes to protect minors, but each state can do it their own way. For instance, the German media law covers both broadcasting (TV and radio) as well as the Internet, which is not typical in other EU states.

Mr Wang Lei (Secretary-General, Sina Internet Law Institute) went on to compare children's protection systems in China, the USA, and Europe. The differences Mr Wang highlighted are in definitions, in related acts and scope of implementation, and ways to receive parental content and corresponding legislature. Wang reported that the Children's Personal Information Network Protection regulations of China are the first regulations that provide general rules regarding the online collecting and processing of personal information of children under the age of 14.

It is worth noting that this session was organised the Chinese government, a country that, in the past years, has quickly become an Internet giant. Mr He Bo, (Researcher, China Academy of Information and Communications Technology) reminded the audience, however, that when we talk about the Chinese user base, we  are talking about 854 million users and a digital economy that is rapidly changing and becoming an engine of economic growth.

By Tereza Horejsova

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