The Safer Internet Forum (SIF) is a key annual international conference in Europe where policy makers, researchers, law enforcement bodies, youth, parents and carers, teachers, NGOs, industry representatives, experts and other relevant actors come together to discuss the latest trends, risks and solutions related to child online safety. The 2017 edition took place on 23 November 2017 in Brussels.
With the theme of “From children’s tech to resilient youth – how to foster wellbeing online?”, the SIF agenda included sessions on children and robotic toys, building resilience with vulnerable groups, whether we should verify age online, and the scale of the challenge being faced in tackling child sexual abuse material online. The EC-facilitated, self-regulatory Alliance to better protect minors online hosted a session on how the various Alliance commitments are now being actioned, while youth representatives reported on their views in response to the Alliance initiative, also sharing the results of ongoing, youth-led co-creation processes. COFACE, as member of the Alliance, was invited to speak in that panel to give input on the work of the Alliance.
The Alliance has been mostly valuable for education and awareness raising initiatives. It has also helped steer the development of select tools for parents/children like parental control tools, privacy settings, and put pressure on companies to address certain issues like cyberbullying and hate speech through better moderation. But COFACE Families Europe believes that there is still room for improvement in several areas:
- Transparency of business models: It would be useful to come up with an indicator to measure how much advertising there is on companies’ websites in order to monitor the ratio between advertising and native content.
- GDPR and data privacy: Companies could reflect on creating a special type of account for children below 16 where no personal data is processed or collected (no parental consent would be necessary in such cases) – we are keen to strike a balance between protecting the data of children and giving them autonomy to harness the potential of technology.
- The impact of online business models which are over-reliant on advertising: The Alliance could launch a reflection about alternative online business models, such as subscription-based models, freemium or free-to-play, etc. Educating children/youth about different business models in the digital economy would also be useful.
- Misunderstanding on what “user empowerment” really means: We would like to move away from the passive consumer ethos to one of active participants with a right to agency on the services they use. The right to better shape their use of the internet, give users real power over the service and responsibilise them to maintain quality content (e.g. the possibility to hide Facebook posts from when they were a teenager). More broadly speaking, we are talking digital citizenship.
- The alliance needs to discuss “future” challenges, and avoid only being reactive: A few challenges on our radar include Virtual reality, Augmented Reality, the Decentralised Web, Blockchain and initiatives which allow for decentralized hosting (Sia, Filecoin), connected toys and the algorithms they run. The Alliance needs to be strategic and forward-thinking.
Commercial platforms are making huge efforts, and we acknowledge that, especially the great work of the Alliance. Education, self-regulation are important, but things are not moving fast enough to ensure safety online for children. We need to make sure children are protected, and hence we should set standards. You cannot make people completely safe but you can provide a seatbelt. That is the role of regulation. We are keen to strike a healthy balance of measures focusing on education, self-regulation, and regulation.