EU countries must do more to protect children online

But not at the expense of civil liberties, advocacy groups say

European Union states are failing to sufficiently protect children online, a new European Commission study contends.

The report measures how effectively E.U. countries have implanted the Commission's 2006 recommendations on the protection of minors using audiovisual and online services. But the results are disappointing, said the Commission.

There is a lack of harmony in how different member states tackle the reporting of illegal or harmful content. They use different age rating systems and different technological means of ensuring children access only age-appropriate content. The report says that there is considerable scope for enhancing children's protection in these sectors.

"Children are going online more, and younger, and are exploring an exciting digital world of opportunity. But we urgently need to step up a gear to empower and protect children in this ever-changing digital world. We need to give parents and teachers the confidence to take on their responsibilities. The strategy I will present later this year will tackle these problems head on," said Digital Agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes.

Digital civil liberties group EDRi welcomed the Commissioner's commitment to give parents responsibility, but said "perfect security is by definition impossible, unless you want to destroy the openness of the Internet. Information and awareness are the best tools to protect minors. This was made very clear in the British OFSTED report, which said that students are safest when they are trusted to manage their own risk," said Joe McNamee of EDRi.

The report calls for countries to improve infrastructures for the removal of "harmful and illegal content." However, EDRi points out that "harmful content" and "illegal content" are different.

"Harmful content will be defined by parents and children very differently depending on their age, social background, religious background, etcetera. An open invitation to intermediaries to regulate "harmful" content simply does not reflect reality," he said. "Illegal content, however, must be dealt with seriously by the forces of law and order, using due process and the weight of the state -- with assistance, as necessary, appropriate and legal. Ad hoc, unpredictable privatized policing of allegedly illegal content by businesses is dangerous for minors and dangerous for fundamental rights."

The Commission report also calls for improved awareness of the risks to children of social networking and better age classification and rating systems for online games. A recent survey found that 38 percent of 9- to 12-year-olds in Europe who use the Internet say they have a profile on a social networking site.

Follow Jennifer on Twitter at @BrusselsGeek or email tips and comments to jennifer_baker@idg.com.

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