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Tasmina Ahmed Sheikh
How the European Union is helping to protect children online 17th April 2013

Tasmina and family

The Internet has opened up a vast resource of information to all of us, one that shifts and changes literally by the second. We have instant news, 24 hours a day, wherever we are; we can check ahead if a flight looks likely to be delayed; we can know in advance if there’s a traffic problem on the way to work.

That, of course, is just the tip of the iceberg. Underneath, you can find out information on everything from the ancient Romans to how to build your own home. Kids can get the answers to homework questions and some, unsurprisingly, can just buy or copy their essays.

Cyberspace, for all its value, can be a very nasty place. Perhaps it is inevitable that alongside freedom of speech and the open resources the Web provides, there will always be those who seek to abuse.

Pornographers are the most obvious and potent. In 2009, Lothian and Borders Police managed to catch a particular group of men.

This ring of eight paedophiles was convicted of child abuse and producing indecent images of children. They were found guilty of more than 50 charges, ranging from abusing infants from three months old to conspiracy, and holding more than 125,000 images of child pornography.

Email and photographs are easy tools for people like this. Children are vulnerable to the kind of friendly overtures such criminals make.

And it isn’t only pornography that is attacking people online. At least 10,000 people were victims of human trafficking in the EU in 2010. The actual figure is probably much larger. These criminal activities are also carried out through Internet communications.

Older, so-called ‘silver surfers’, have become vulnerable to various financial rip-offs online. Others have literally opened their doors to burglars as a result of earlier email contact.

Social media is a lifeline for some and a tool for exploitation to others.

I try to protect my own children. Their access to online information is carefully controlled in our house but I recognise that we need stronger and even more effective weapons, if we are to really keep them safe.

And that’s where the EU comes in.

Granted, there is only so much legislation can do, but if you operate the same laws across 27 countries and 504 million people, then that can really increase its effective leverage. There is nowhere to run. The European Arrest Warrant that David Cameron wants to get rid of means that member countries will automatically return the accused to the country in which the crime was allegedly committed.

For children, the EU has recognised the importance of giving them the digital skills and tools they need to benefit fully and safely from the digital world. A year ago, the Commission set out its plans to achieve that.

European Commissioner for Home Affairs, Cecilia Malmström, said last May: ''We are living in the digital age and the younger generations are those most active online. These young people are particularly at ease with the use of the internet but they are still vulnerable to online threats. It is our duty as parents to keep our children safe – and this includes on the Web. We have to reinforce cooperation at European and international levels to combat cybercrime, and especially the most horrible acts such as sexual exploitation and the dissemination of child sexual abuse material online".

The Internet wasn’t created for children but they are using it more and more and from an earlier age. Alongside all of the vast opportunities for business and education, we need to protect our children from abuse online just as we do on the street.

Ultimately, it’s up to us as parents to make sure we have the controls in place, but it’s reassuring to know that the European Commission is aware of the issues and seeking to act. This is an extract from ‘The Digital Agenda for Europe’:

“Young people and children are the most active group using the Internet today: 73 % of people aged 16 to 24 regularly use advanced services to create and share online content, twice the EU average (35 %). 66% of all Europeans under 24 use the Internet every day, compared to the EU average of 43 %. However, although these young people may feel totally at home online, they are still vulnerable to online threats.

“The Digital Agenda will help parents and their children keep safe online. In particular, through the Safer Internet programme, all EU countries will be encouraged to set up hotlines for reporting offensive online content and offer teaching online safety in schools. Providers of the online services that are most popular among the younger generations (e.g. social networks, mobile phone operators) will be asked to further develop self-regulatory measures regarding online safety for children by 2013.

“Finally, the Digital Agenda proposes to reinforce cooperation at European and International levels to combat cybercrime (e.g. alert platforms online at national and EU levels to tackle sexual exploitation and dissemination of child sexual abuse material online) and other forms of cyber attacks, identity theft and spam.”

I want to be there to contribute to Europe getting this right.

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