The United Nations and the European Commission recently engaged in public major consultations on children’s rights, looking at several critical issues’ children face, including in the digital space. ECPAT International, as the leading global child rights organization against all forms of sexual exploitation of children, responded to the EU consultation because ECPAT International is putting children at the heart of digital policy. These consultations offered valuable opportunities for global leaders, governments, organisations, and others, to provide their expertise and insights into how new strategies, policies and laws should be shaped. Now, it is time for the initiatives and actions to be adopted and prioritised. Actions that have already begun with the findings of the UN General Comment 25 and ECPAT anticipate to take place for the European Commission findings later this year.
The UN General Comment 25 is hugely important. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is the foundational document which inspires child protection and child rights work in every nation. Yet, adopted in 1989, it is essentially a pre-internet document. If it were being written today the language used would be very different in parts. So the General Comment 25 does not change any part of the Convention but it provides a guide to governments everywhere on how to interpret it in the light of the emergence of digital technologies and the massive part they play in children’s lives. Among other things the General Comment calls for the prioritisation of children’s safety on online platforms – and ECPAT couldn’t agree more. As such, it has become increasingly important to make sure children’s safety is at the centre of all digital policies.
Research from the UN General Comment 25 noted that children all around the world have shown an increased usage of technology in both leisure and educational activities. Additionally, the amount of time spent online has increased due to COVID. Europol recently reported an increase in offenders attempting to contact young people via social media since the pandemic and many countries are still not out of the woods so this is a further incentive to act.
UN General Comment 25 highlights how the digital landscape provides a unique opportunity for children of all ages to access a rich variety of information. ECPAT believes it’s imperative platforms take a safety-first approach, which on the basis of design and privacy should be set to the highest possible level of security and privacy. This has been backed-up further by the newly implemented code from the Information Commissioner’s Office in the UK which puts the interests of children’s safety at the forefront of all online activity. The code sets out 15 standards to reflect a risk-based approach. ECPAT agrees that access to information is a fundamental right for children, but children also have the right to be safe online. These cannot be mutually exclusive.
UN General Comment 25 places a significant emphasis on the idea that digital parties should take all appropriate measures to protect children and support in raising issues. ECPAT strongly agree and believe they play a critical role. There needs to be a regime of trustworthiness and transparency governing the online world. Along with other child’s rights actors, ECPAT believes that if companies claim they are protecting children, the claim must be verifiable. To guard against unverifiable claims, technology companies must confirm to a mandated authority that they are honouring their legal obligations, including towards children. This means keeping them safe and ensuring the privacy of their personal data.
UN General Comment 25 highlights administrative measures which must be taken to protect children from explicit content, including frameworks and robust legislation. While agreeing strongly with this, ECPAT International also makes clear that if these measures are put into action, then safeguards need to be in place to prevent a private or any other organisation gaining unauthorised access to an individuals’ data.
ECPAT strongly welcomes consultations like the UN General Comment 25 and the European Commission’s public consultation on children’s rights. These provide vital opportunities to collaborate between policy makers, governments and civil society organizations on what needs to happen to keep children safe; the opportunity to ensure their rights are put firmly at the centre of policy decisions moving forward; and ultimately to action and policy change. ECPAT welcomes the adoption of the UN General Comment 25 and the anticipated concrete outcomes of the European Commission’s public consultations in the form of legislation and a new EU Centre to combat child sexual abuse. ECPAT now looks forward to seeing them translated by governments and the private sector into a better, safer digital world for children.