Children's online safety is number one priority, say MEPs

Sabine Verheyen and Graham Watson tell the Parliament Magazine about the importance of ensuring a safer internet for all.

By Des Hinton-Beales

07 Feb 2014

The near infinite possibilities of the internet are changing the way we look at information and how its access is managed. The question used to be 'Do you know where your children are?', but now your children can be anywhere, talking to anyone at any time, while sitting quietly at their computers or simply using their phones. The opportunities of online communication and activity are huge, but this brave new world also comes with its own risks and preparing this generation and the next to navigate these challenges is what Safer Internet Day (SID) is all about.

"Today, children are working with, dealing with, playing in and having contact with others via the internet" - Sabine Verheyen

As a member of the European parliament's culture and education committee, Sabine Verheyen has underlined the importance of considering the potential negative impacts of the online environment. "Today, children are working with, dealing with, playing in and having contact with others via the internet," she said. "These children are 'digital natives' - they know the technology and they know how to use it."

For Verheyen, education is the key to "empowering" children to safely unlock the potential of the online world. However, the German MEP stressed that children will often be "more experienced" in internet and ICT issues than their parents or teachers. "We must empower and educate teachers, social workers, and parents as they need the knowledge to be able to teach and care for children. We have to do this better than we did in the past so that we can ensure children are strong enough to face the dangers in the net." However, Verheyen was quick to stress that this should not be a one-way street. "Exchanges should not just be about children, but also to discuss these issues with children," she said. Verheyen had the opportunity to speak with some young people attending the 2013 Internet Governance Forum in Bali. The EPP deputy highlighted the "astonishing point of view" of these young people, saying she had been told "we don't want to be protected in the way you want - we want to make our own experiences, but we want the opportunity to get protection when we need it". Verheyen underlined the need for these kinds of exchanges, saying, "It is very important to listen to those who should be protected."

"The internet is replete with opportunity, but can also be a dangerous place for our children. There is nothing more important than keeping our young people safe on the internet" - Graham Watson

Verheyen also highlighted a "second way" of promoting online safety, which is to shield children from harmful online content through the use of "filtering software for parents that they can put onto their devices". However, Verheyen noted that, "This is for very small children to stop them from coming onto sites that are not appropriate." She also underlined the need for these kinds of measures to be "done in a voluntary way" and that they must also be "easy for parents who aren't educated in internet or ICT issues". Verheyen also called for the private sector to play a role in ensuring a safer online environment, saying, "Content providers must also provide the opportunity to protect children in their services". However, while shielding very young children from "harmful content you can get on the internet" is important, Verheyen was quick to reject the possibility of online censoring, stressing, "blocking access is not the solution". She instead called for active cooperation between all online stakeholders, and said that policymakers can play a key role by assisting in the "set-up of programmes of international cooperation". "This was a task that we had to confront as politicians to ask for a common kind of legislation for what is legal and what is not legal and what punishment should look like. If someone can move their website to another country where it is not illegal this is bad because the internet is completely international." Verheyen has also been advocating for stronger funding in the area of internet safety, but said, "unfortunately the member states decided to cut the budget to a large extent", which was "regrettable".

For president of the European Liberal Democrat party Graham Watson the need for a safe online environment is an absolute priority. "The internet is replete with opportunity, but can also be a dangerous place for our children," he warned, stressing, "There is nothing more important than keeping our young people safe on the internet." Watson has played a key role in ensuring that Europe's citizens are able to maintain access to the Safer Internet Centres that span 27 of the EU's 28 member states and which will be coordinating their countries' SID 2014 campaigns.

Watson crusaded in Brussels for these centres to be given priority in the EU's reduced long-term budget, due to concerns about their future funding following serious cuts to the digital Connecting Europe Facility. The British MEP praised the role of the centres as providing "a helpline for victims of online bullying" and playing a "vital role in managing illegal online content". Watson underlined the importance of keeping these centres funded, saying, they were "an example of how savings can be made by pooling services and resources at EU level, while still giving the operational control to the centres with the national knowhow in each European country." "Reduced budgets make it all the more important that we target our spending at what is truly important – and nothing is more so than our children's safety on the net," he concluded.

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