No one-size fits all approach to online safety: Highlighting the European model

This week in Luxembourg, the European Commission is hosting its 7th annual Safer Internet Forum, bringing together representatives of industry, law enforcement, child welfare organizations, and policymakers to discuss the most pressing issues involved in ensuring digital safety for European citizens.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, October marks National Cyber Security Awareness Month, which also seeks to raise awareness about security and safety issues for consumers across the U.S.

Yet, while there is certainly a shared sense of responsibility to promote digital citizenship and raise consumer awareness of safety issues around the globe, there is not yet a universally-accept definition of “online safety.” Online safety covers a raft of issues and means different things to different people.  This is not surprising when you consider how cultural and social norms vary among countries and how governments define what content, contact, or conduct may be inappropriate.

This can visibly be seen in the contrasting approaches Governments around the world take to addressing online safety through public policy measures.  We have also seen a subtle shift of focus in recent years from issues purely related to child online exploitation – such as trading of child abuse images and online grooming and predation – to a focus on issues of harmful conduct such as cyber bullying, sexting, hate speech and violations of children’s privacy.  While it is critical that all these issues be effectively addressed, research in both Europe and the U.S. has shown that children are much more likely to experience online abuses like cyber bullying or breaches of privacy than they are to be groomed by an online predator.

At Microsoft, we generally think of online safety in the context of abuses facilitated through Internet-enabled devices and services that cause harm to others in the online world. In many respects, these abuses are reflective of societal ills and crimes that occur in the real world. Yet, the media sometimes sensationalizes coverage of rare, extreme instances of online grooming, young people who have been harmed, and unfortunate cases of suicide that have resulted from persistent cases of online bullying.  This sensationalism, highlighting the worst possible outcomes not only frightens consumers but sometimes spurs policymakers to make blunt force policy responses rather than taking a more thoughtful and deliberate approach to dealing with these difficult issues over the long-term.  Brussels has definitely taken a long-term and proactive approach to online safety issues. Indeed, Europe currently serves as the epicenter of online safety self-regulatory activity, with potential regulatory action looming if industry does not live up to government expectations of responsible stewardship in this area. The European Commission has previously taken a sector-based approach to concerns about online safety, convening the European Framework for Safer Mobile Use in 2007 and Safer Social Networking Principles for the EU in 2009.

This year, the Commission has taken a more far reaching approach, which includes ideas such as a “single European report abuse button,” mandatory parental controls, and compulsory privacy-by-default settings for online services accessed by youth for the whole digital value chain across all sorts of devices and services.  Further to this, the Commission recently released a report on “Protecting Children in the Digital World,” expressing concern that EU member states may not be adequately responding to issues that involve taking down and minimizing minors’ exposure to illegal and inappropriate content.

What are the most essential steps that governments can take to help ensure the Internet is a safer place for their young citizens?

Microsoft believes an important first step is shoring up laws around child online abuse to give law enforcement the tools to go after the most egregious offenders. In 2010, the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children issued a report that found only 45 out of 196 countries had adequate laws to combat child pornography offenses. Clearly, there is more work on a global basis that needs to be done here.  Once these baseline protections are in-place, self-regulatory measures, like those employed in the EU, provide opportunities for industry to become responsible leaders without imposing mandates that may stifle innovation or limit functionality for users.

As also referenced above, Governments that bring together multi-stakeholder groups to tackle these issues through a shared responsibility model have also yielded balanced approaches to online safety.  It is also worth noting that a number of governments, including the UK, Canada and the U.S., have created successful education and awareness programs, including online safety training, curriculum, and teaching resources for schools. Indeed, from what we have observed, the governments that take a balanced and holistic approach to online safety through multi-stakeholder partnerships, sound public policies, robust education and awareness programs, and sensible use of technology tools have demonstrated the greatest success.

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