Safer Internet Day 2018 – Better internet starts with empowerment

6 February marks Safer Internet Day. There is no better occasion to call the attention of parents, policy makers, providers and other actors working for internet safety that parents are key to educate their children to become responsible digital citizens, they need empowerment and education for that, and that safety will not be achieved by restrictive legislative measures instead.

This year’s topic "Create, connect and share respect: A better internet starts with you" is a great starting point for awareness raising. In Europe there is a loud group of stakeholders that are trying to lull parents into a false feeling of safety stating that it is possible to create a special safe internet highway for children by restrictive measures.

We must be aware that it is not possible, and making parents think this endangers children more. Parents need to be aware that compulsory parental consent – apart from being a severe violation of parents’ rights – will not make internet any safer for our children, but may restrict their rights to education, to play and participate in artistic activities, to be connected to their relatives, to peaceful assembly and to freedom of assembly.

What we need instead is investment in parental empowerment. Parents need to be aware that the best way to internet safety is a combination of them increasing their knowledge about all aspects of their children’s lives including online presence and building a trustful relationship with their children so that they learn about even the smallest harm be it online or offline.

The GDPR is likely to enter into force in less than half a year in the EU. Article 8 contains measures on compulsory parental consent leaving the threshold age to be between 13 and 16 to Member States, letting providers go off the hook being responsible for children’s safety. Even these age differences raise questions: what happens if the threshold is different in the country where the provider resides and the one the user is. Action groups around Europe are still trying to prevent the introduction of these measures, parents support these, this is why EPA joined the #GDPRHaveYourSay action group after a very positive discussion at the Pafos EPA Conference in April 2017. Parents are represented in the GDPR Expert Group set up by the European Commission and keep raising concerns, but we don’t have high hopes.

Regardless the success of these motions we must keep working for the best interest of children and this means working for empowering parents. Organised parents in Europe and beyond have worked in the spirit of the EPA policy paper on Cyberbullying and Social Networks published in 2015: “The aim of parental presence on the internet and in social networks should not be the control of our children, the intention to violate their freedom or invade their privacy.” We need the support of service providers to make it possible for parents to understand how their services work, and also policy makers who understand the legal implications of their actions and who are in a position to incentivise investment in parents’ empowerment.

Parents are in line with the effort of the Council of Europe on fostering responsible digital citizenship from an early age, and it requires the possibility of online presence. There is a need to stop implementing COPPA* in Europe as it also violates child rights and leave the decision on starting age of using online services to children properly guided by their empowered parents.

Safer Internet Day is a good opportunity to raise these concerns again and call for action by stakeholders, especially policy makers, online service providers and supporters of Safer Internet Day.

*COPPA: Children's Online Privacy Protection Act of the USA

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