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Document 52001AE1473

Opinion of the Economic and Social Committee on "A programme for child protection on the Internet"

OJ C 48, 21.2.2002, p. 27–32 (ES, DA, DE, EL, EN, FR, IT, NL, PT, FI, SV)

52001AE1473

Opinion of the Economic and Social Committee on "A programme for child protection on the Internet"

Official Journal C 048 , 21/02/2002 P. 0027 - 0032


Opinion of the Economic and Social Committee on "A programme for child protection on the Internet"

(2002/C 48/06)

On 28 February 2001 the Economic and Social Committee, acting under the second paragraph of Rule 23 of its Rules of Procedure, decided to draw up an opinion on "A programme for child protection on the Internet".

The Section for Transport, Energy, Infrastructure and the Information Society, which was responsible for preparing the Committee's work on the subject, adopted its opinion on 6 November 2001. The rapporteur was Mrs Davison.

At its 386th plenary session on 28 and 29 November 2001 (meeting of 28 November), the Economic and Social Committee adopted the following opinion by 112 votes for with three abstentions.

1. Introduction

1.1. The Economic and Social Committee has produced several opinions which refer to the need for child protection on the Internet. Since the first was produced in 1997, with Dame Jocelyn Barrow as rapporteur, Internet use in many countries of Europe has expanded enormously with around 100 million people now on-line(1). The potential for exposure to harmful content is expanding along with the obvious benefits of the Internet. Besides the illegal use of the Internet for distribution of child pornography, Europe is beginning to follow the US in seeing its own cases of both attempted and actual child abduction by paedophiles using the Internet for their approach.

1.2. The Committee is therefore calling on all players, government, the Internet industry, educational authorities, the content providers, parents associations and the user groups working with parents to make the strenuous efforts required to provide effective child protection and to provide plenty of positive sites for children. Its initiative for child protection on the Internet is offered here to complement and strengthen the EU Internet Action Plan (IAP) and raise the profile of such action with the Committee's constituent groups, the socio-economic interest groups.

1.3. The Internet has great benefits for children; they use it for communication, entertainment, education and information. However, as it expands in Europe, problems experienced in the US are beginning to be seen here too throughout the EU. Paedophiles have been posing as children in the anonymity of the Internet and managing to arrange face-to-face meetings, which have several times ended in rape. Chat rooms are often the medium used by paedophiles for their line of approach. Recent prosecutions of child pornography ring members across Europe, led by Sweden, have highlighted the new opportunities for online abuse. Police report that thousands of children are being abused for photos and videos to be shown on-line. And, apart from criminal activity, surveys of children, indeed even a few minutes of casual surfing, reveal easy access to harmful content(2).

1.4. Pornography: An estimated 30 % of visits and about 50-60000 sites concern pornography. Those who distribute soft pornography often do not want to aim it at children - indeed, children are not good customers since they cannot pay, but access is extremely easy.

1.4.1. Some pornographic sites are charged at premium rates and only include warnings which children are likely to ignore. In some countries, but not all, telephone companies write to warn the subscriber of heavy bills. Even then, bills may already have exceeded EUR 200.

1.5. Gambling: There is little evidence of regulation of gambling on the Internet, although some countries, like France, do not permit citizen gambling for money on the Internet. Many sites have no age restriction and offer gambling for fun or for money. Once the surfer has visited gambling sites, banner ads for others appear on the screen. Research in Greece has, revealed gambling by children using their parents' credit cards and Austrian and UK research has revealed concern about gambling on the net to be a major issue among children themselves(3).

1.6. Violence: Two authoritative US reports have examined 1000 pieces of research from a span of over 30 years and have concluded that children are adversely affected by violence in the media in relation to aggressiveness, desensitisation and fearfulness. The majority of these studies reach the same conclusion, say the reports, that media violence leads to real-world violence(4). Racism and xenophobia - refer to Cybercrime Opinion(5).

1.6.1. Yet via the Internet, children can access violent computer games and videos without their parents realising. One Internet site shows photos of real murder and suicide victims. This has been ruled perfectly legal by Finnish courts. A white supremacist site offers a children's web page and a football hooligans' site arranges opportunities for fights.

1.7. There are also some problems with tobacco and alcohol promotion to children on the Internet.

2. The Committee's previous opinions

2.1. The Committee supports as broad as possible access to the Internet and education on its use. In its opinion on e-Europe: an Information Society for All of 24 January 2001(6) the Committee concluded that "not a single European citizen, regardless of the level of schooling reached, or company of any size, should be able to deny having had the opportunity or the possibility to acquaint themselves with the information society". It asked for modernisation of schools to embrace the new medium and for help for regions lagging behind.

2.2. The ESC believes that Internet regulation should be sensitive, proportionate and non-discriminatory and impinge as little as possible on the principles of privacy and free speech. However, it believes that some regulation is necessary because of the need to protect minors, women and ethnic minorities, and for the practical reason that concerns over harmful and illegal content on the Internet is shown by a number of surveys to be deterring consumers from using the Internet. In its Opinion on the Protection of Minors and Human Dignity in Audiovisual and Information Services in 1998(7), the Committee expressed its concern that "lack of protection for minors from illegal and harmful content" was deterring use of the Internet(8).

2.3. In its 1997 Opinion on the Green Paper on the Protection of Minors and Human Dignity in Audiovisual and Information Services(9), the Committee proposed "some form of European-wide self-regulatory body should be established which would be overseen/governed by an international body. This self-regulatory body should be responsible for dealing with complaints about illegal and/or harmful content and for tracing offender, for requesting the removal of offending content and if offenders do not co-operate, for taking action against the offenders themselves".

2.4. In 1998 the ESC called for:

- use of rating systems and filtering software;

- educational and awareness-raising initiatives;

- a European (or even internationally accepted) framework of codes of conduct, guidelines and grass-roots measures such as "hot-lines" and youth protection officers.

2.5. After these opinions, the EU adopted a Safer Internet Action Plan, reflecting these ideas. Nonetheless, most recently in its Opinion on "Principles and Guidelines for the Community's audiovisual policy in the digital age(10)", the Committee considered that protection of minors is becoming more difficult to achieve in the digital era and therefore a stricter approach to standards and mechanisms should be adopted, for example:

- it would be possible to place child-protection mechanisms in television sets and computers which allow the highest level of protection. At the same time, the protection mechanisms could be removed or reduced to suit individual circumstances;

- information on child/human dignity and protection systems and rating should be available on Internet pages, leaflets and mouse pads at point of sale;

- compulsory rating of programming/content;

- the use of domain names to extend the film-rating system to the Internet;

- in a positive and pro-active direction, quality and attractive programming like the German "Kinder Kanal sets a good example."

2.6. The Committee's Opinion on Combating Computer Crime(11) argued against anonymity on the Internet and asked for an international management body for the Internet with extensive public authority involvement.

3. The EU Safer Internet Action Plan(12)

3.1. On 25 January 1999 the Commission adopted a Multiannual Community Action Plan on promoting safer use of the Internet by combating illegal and harmful content on global networks, partly in response to the Committee's work.

3.2. The Safer Internet Action Plan has four action lines:

- Creating a safer environment

- Creating a European network of hot-lines for consumers to report any suspicion of child pornography(13).

- Encouraging self-regulation and codes of conduct.

- Developing filtering and rating systems

- Demonstrating the benefits of voluntary filtering and rating such as ICRA.

- Facilitating international agreement on rating systems.

- Encouraging awareness actions

- Preparing the ground for awareness actions.

- Encouraging implementation of full-scale awareness actions.

- Support actions

- Assessing legal implications.

- Co-ordination with similar international initiatives.

- Evaluating the impact of Community measures.

3.3. This broad approach has been endorsed by results of a major study with academic experts undertaken by the Bertelsmann Foundation.

The Internet Action Plan had an impact. For example, its hotlines helped to track down a paedophile ring. Hotlines to which surfers are encouraged to report child pornography, or related systems are now available in all Member States except Greece and Portugal.

3.4. Awareness-raising measures sponsored by the Safer Internet Action Plan, to educate parents and children such as the attached codes for parents and children are helping to warn children against meeting "strangers" from the Internet. Filtering and rating mechanisms based on the Internet Content Rating Association (ICRA) model have been made available free to consumers.

3.5. The plan has encouraged a range of filtering systems. ICRA relies on website publishers deciding to self-rate their site according to criteria on, for example, sex, nudity, gambling. The criteria are based on global work done in the Platform for Internet Content Selection (PIC).

3.6. The consumers decide themselves what kind of sites they wish to avoid when they set up the system in their own computer. The browser or other software then reads the labels and closes access to those sites, unless a password is typed in. Suppliers of operating systems or Internet connection software should be encouraged to rapidly develop "smarter", more contextual filtering systems and integrate them into their programmes. Such systems would not unnecessarily block access to certain scientific sites or to encyclopaedias discussing, for example, biological or sex education issues.

3.7. There are other systems which can be used. The consumer may buy a software or ISP package which has categorised web-sites for them or which uses trigger words or pictures to dynamically analyse the contents of the web-site. Software can record activity, including conversations in chat rooms and can control children's e-mail lists and prevent the sending of certain information like credit card numbers.

3.8. The advantage of the ICRA system is that, thanks to the Internet Action Plan, it is available free to the consumer and is already installed in the main browsers.

3.9. None of these programmes can actually stop material appearing on the Internet in the first place. All they do is empower the individual end user to make choices about what may or may not appear on their screens or their children's screens.

4. ESC proposals for a programme for child protection on the Internet

4.1. The almost universally accepted UN "Convention on the Rights of the Child(14)" refers to the need to "encourage the development of appropriate guidelines for the protection of the child from information and material injurious to his or her well-being."

4.2. Illegal activity

4.2.1. Bringing child pornographers to justice is taking too long. The police are only managing to trace a tiny number of the thousands of children whose images appear in on-line abuse. They need sufficient staff, proper training in Internet crime and effective international co-operation. Both Europol and Interpol have to be strengthened. Hotlines need to be firmly established in all Member States and given an advertising budget commensurate with their vital role. Specialist police units must be equipped with the most up-to-date and most appropriate hard- and software for their investigations, so that they are not working at a disadvantage.

4.2.2. The distinction between privacy (for example the right to restrict use of one's financial data) and traceability is likely to be redrawn after the attacks on the US Police access (with due authorisation) to potentially suspicious on-line material would then be improved. Content providers should register real world addresses and the use of blocked caller identification on-line should be reconsidered.

4.2.3. Existing laws need to be clarified and modernised to take account of crimes such as luring or tricking children into meetings. In this context, the Committee welcomes the establishment of the European Forum on Cybercrime and proposes that a similar forum or task force be set up to examine the main problems relating to children on the Internet (including harmful content) and how to tackle them in an integrated fashion with the work on cybercrime.

4.2.4. The Internet must not escape from the rule of law. Criminal offences and penalties must be specific, and they must be defined in a way which is accepted at European and, as far as possible, world level. This irreplaceable means of communication between individuals and cultures, of training and education, leisure and trade must remain an arena in which freedom of expression, opinion, trade and industry, as well as the confidentiality of correspondence and personal privacy are safeguarded. Any measure which may restrict the fundamental freedoms should be strictly proportionate and justified on the grounds of protecting the broader interests of society, such as the pursuit and arrest of natural or legal persons who have committed criminal offences.

4.3. Awareness-raising

4.3.1. Part of the solution is for parents to be more aware of what their children can access on the Internet and to make sensible rules. Parents take the main responsibility for their children; this situation, however, is very unusual in that children know so much more about the Internet than their parents (and even their teachers) and the practical implications of that knowledge is so far-reaching. For this reason the task of educating parents and teachers needs to be taken very seriously. Content providers also need to be aware that children are generally alone when they use the net and to show broadcaster responsibility.

4.3.2. The awareness-raising aspects of the Internet Action Plan are very important. In addition the EU should include this in its planning on life-long learning, for example E Europe and E learning. The Member States need to share best practice. For example Portugal has a pilot programme of minibuses stocked with computers visiting schools so that parents can be taught Internet use by their children.

4.3.3. Businesses, trade unions, teacher, consumer and family organisations can all help to educate children and parents. The Committee would encourage parents and carers to display rules, such as those annexed, by their computers. ISPs should display them prominently from their home pages and on mouse mats etc. Because of the cases of paedophile stalking on the Internet, it is extremely important that children learn not to arrange to meet anyone they come across first on the Internet unless their parents are happy to come with them, and in a public place.

4.4. Harmful content

4.4.1. Since even a six-year old can now much more easily see pornography, for example, it is all the more important to define harmful content and provide protection(15).

4.4.2. Some content is a particular danger to others if it encourages violence or sexual or racial hatred. For example racial supremacy sites even have special pages for children and on-line advice on bomb-making and suicide has been reported. The Committee would propose expanding the range of illegal content. For example, France has banned racist sites. In its Opinion on Cybercrime the Committee has called for the approximation of laws and sanctions concerning combating religions sects, racist ideas, sexism and, more generally, the promotion of pornography and violence.

4.4.3. The challenge is enforcement against sites set up on the other side of the globe especially anonymous sites. The French ban is being challenged in the US courts. A convention or international agreement is needed that the law of the user applies. In this respect, the Committee welcomes the work of the Council of Europe.

4.4.4. Regarding harmful, but not illegal, content, the Committee supports a "notice and take-down" policy combined with more effective use of labelling and filtering schemes. A standards body would receive complaints about sites, and, if it ruled in their favour, would ask ISPs and search engines to remove access in the same way that complaints against offensive advertising are dealt with in some Member States.

4.4.5. The Committee is disappointed with the small percentage of content on the Internet that has been labelled. Voluntary efforts have fallen short and the need now is for governments to intervene with a carrot and stick approach to ensure the rapid expansion of rating.

4.4.6. The EU should make a sustained and public effort to have all content providers label their material, as a minimum to the ICRA standard. Those who do not will and should be frozen out of the market because they will not be picked up by filtering systems. Any computers sold into the domestic market should have child-safety software pre-installed and set by default to a high level of security which the consumer can reduce or uninstal. They should be accompanied by easy-to-understand point of sale material explaining the basics of on-line safety and of filtering and rating. A cheap and easy opportunity to adopt such systems needs to be offered to owners of older computers. Trust on-line schemes should automatically require their members to rate their sites.

4.4.7. Whilst recognizing the nature of modern family, parents need to supervise their children's surfing when they can. Especially they need to be helped to understand the technical options to protect children from both harmful material and stalking. These include "walled gardens" (positive lists of sites children can visit), negative lists which aim to prevent access to the worst offenders and rating systems which allow parents to set their own preferences. Surveys show the limitations of current systems, and more work needs to be done to make them effective and simple to use.

4.4.8. There is also an overwhelming case for broadcaster/ISP responsibility to support parents and protect those children whose parents are unable to do so. Except for those few ISPs specialising in an adult membership, ISPs should advertise child-friendly search engines and signpost areas especially for children. This best practice needs to be replicated. In the new digital age we need to maintain the EU tradition of public service broadcasting.

4.5. Premium lines

Violent games and material should only be made available when on a proven order from an adult and downloads charged to premium lines should be avoided, unless there is confirmation by adult signature. The US experience of requiring confirmation from adults regarding on-line purchases needs to be built upon. Telephone companies should, as in France, urgently alert subscribers by post or by telephone, as soon as unusually high charges appear on their accounts.

4.6. Chat rooms

4.6.1. ISPs that allow children onto their networks at all and give access to Internet chat rooms or other chat channels should also provide and promote the availability of moderated chat aimed specifically at children. Chat-safety messages should be prominently displayed close to or in chat areas and mechanisms should exist which would allow suspicious behaviour towards children to be noted, reported and dealt with very rapidly. Moderators need to be licensed in the same way as other adults who supervise children.

4.6.2. Current ISP procedures should be reviewed to include wherever possible the recording and storing of chat-room conversations, as is already the practice with premium-rate telephone services, linked to the given identities of the participants. Costs can be kept low by using compression software to increase capacity/storage space.

4.7. Sales promotion and advertising

The EU should ensure that on-line sales promotion does not take advantage of children's impulsiveness and inexperience. Further, restrictions on tobacco and alcohol advertising need to be properly enforced on-line.

5. Conclusions

5.1. The Committee would emphasise the benefits of the Internet for children and the need to transfer the culture of public service broadcasting into the new media to create a multiplicity of good material for children. At the same time the prevalence of harmful content needs to be attacked with new vigour.

5.2. The Committee is concerned that police remain unable to trace the majority of children abused for child pornography on-line. It welcomes the intention of the Commission to strengthen co-operation in this area. Europol and Interpol especially need to be targeted.

5.3. The Committee endorses the Internet Action Plan and would strengthen it with more resources. However, the plan does need to be backed up by legislation and new institutions in some cases, and by vigorous action on the part of governments, ISPs and the socio-economic interest groups. The Committee does not accept that normal rules should be abandoned in the new media environment.

Brussels, 28 November 2001.

The President

of the Economic and Social Committee

Göke Frerichs

(1) NUA Internet Surveys (http://www.nua/ie).

(2) For example, in July 1999 one in five children said they came across upsetting information and told nobody because they did not want to lose access to the Internet.

(3) Research under the EU Internet Action Plan, conducted by European Research into Consumer Affairs, E.KAT.O, Greece and LAK, Austria (see Appendix 3).

(4) American Academy of Paediatrics, American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association, American Medical Association and American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Joint Statement on the Impact of Entertainment Violence on Children, Congressional Public Health Summit, July 26, 2000 and Children, Violence and the Media; A Report for Parents and Policy Makers; Senate Committee on the Judiciary; Senator Orrin G. Hatch; Utah; Chairman; Committee on the Judiciary Prepared by Majority Staff Senate Committee on the Judiciary September 14, 1999.

(5) OJ C 311, 7.11.2001.

(6) OJ C 123, 25.4.2001, p. 36.

(7) OJ C 214, 10.7.1998, p. 25.

(8) A British survey found 70 % of parents "horrified" at the prospect of their children viewing "undesirable content on-line" NOP July 2000.

(9) OJ C 287, 22.9.1997, p. 11.

(10) OJ C 116, 20.4.2001, p. 30.

(11) OJ C 311, 7.11.2001.

(12) http://europa.eu.int/ISPO/iap/index.html.

(13) Reports can be made to any of melding@stopline.at in Austria, gpj@gpj.be in Belgium, redbarnet@redbarnet.dk in Denmark, contact@afa-france.com in France, hotline@jugendschutz.net or hotline@fsm.de in Germany, report@hotline.ie in Ireland, crimino@unige.it in Italy, meldpunt@meldpunt.org in the Netherlands, acpi@eresmas.net in Spain, rb-hotline@telia.com or minor@press.rb.se in Sweden and report@iwf.org.uk in Britain. Portugal has a website on www.pgr.pt/english/index.htm.

(14) 'Parties recognize the right of the child to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the childs education, or to be harmful to the childs health or physical, spiritual, moral or social development'. UN 'Convention on the Rights of the Child', 1989, Art. 32.1.

(15) http://europa.eu.int/ISPO/iap/index.html.

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