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SPEECH/11/376

Neelie Kroes

Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda

Protecting and saving children

International Missing Children’s Day 2011

Brussels, 25 May 2011

Your Majesty,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Our children, our youngsters, are our most precious treasure.

They represent our future: for us as individuals and as a society. Their safety - and as a grandmother of small children I feel deeply about this - is a fundamental priority.

We must strive to achieve this objective in all situations, "on-line" and "off-line". And technology can help us immensely.

Take for example the 116 hotline for missing children, a vital service made possible by technological progress.

I am very pleased that national contact points for missing children are available in 15 Member States. But I am not pleased that 12 Member States are still not on the list. Especially as parents travelling with kids should be able to rely on this service. We know that citizens want this service. And as of today, the revised EU telecom rules require Member States to make every effort to ensure that citizens have access to a hotline to report cases of missing children. So we have both citizens and the law on our side. I would prefer if we could find consensual solutions, but let me be clear: I will use all means to ensure that all Member States shoulder their responsibilities.

I expect industry also to do its part. We need more awareness and ease of use, for example by pre-loading the 116 number on SIM cards or on applications for smartphones. That is why I have encouraged mobile operators to come up with creative solutions. GSMA Europe [the association of mobile operators] is ready to work with the Commission on finding innovative approaches. I hope we will see concrete examples very soon.

But we have a duty to be more ambitious.

Let me focus on the Internet and the digital world. There is no doubt that this "brave new world" does present risks as well as opportunities for our youngsters. Exposure to harmful content, bullying, grooming, psychological and physical abuse, sexual harassment; these risks continue to exist "off-line" and it would be naïve to think they do not exist, in one form or another, "on-line".

Therefore, we need protective and preventive measures in place and make sure they work more efficiently and effectively, across Europe and internationally. Our Safer Internet programme is already doing much to support people in the field. It aims at empowering and protecting minors online by awareness raising initiatives and by fighting illegal and harmful online content and conduct. The programme also funds projects which investigate both the behaviour of groomers and of their victims so we can understand better how to protect children especially at risk.

But we must also understand that safety does not only mean protection against risks and threats.

Instead, we have to empower our children and youngsters and let them see the digital world and the Internet for what they truly are: an incredible resource for learning, expressing oneself, knowing people from everywhere.

We need to work on education and awareness. We must realise that an 8-year old child has different needs than a 16-year youngster. We must also realise that our ability as parents and educators to "order" our youngsters what to do is limited, especially in a hyper-connected world.

Everyone should have the technological instruments to ensure that children and youngsters can enjoy the huge benefits of the digital world, avoid its worst elements, and handle its unpleasant aspects. Innovation in developing user-friendly and efficient parental control tools and age-rating systems is one way we are exploring.

But we cannot, and should not, put our children and youngsters in a digital glass cage, hoping they will never encounter any harmful or illegal content online. This will simply not work.

To conclude: prevention, protection, prosecution must be strengthened, at the European and international level. But we must also remember that building safety also means building trust: trust in our children and youngsters that they have the intelligence, capacity, and maturity to use these wonderful instruments in a positive and empowering way. It is our responsibility to guide them in their growth towards this objective.

This is why I intend to engage the Commission in a new integrated initiative after the summer. This will not be a top-down approach, but a collective effort to make the Internet and the digital world a safer place; to make sure that our children get all the protection, help and support they need.


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