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Neelie Kroes

Vice-President of the European Commission
responsible for Digital Agenda

Safer Internet Day 2011: protecting children online

Child Focus, Safer Internet Centre in Belgium

Safer Internet Day, 8 February, 2011

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is good to be here with you today, and I want to especially thank Child Focus for hosting this event. You are the Safer Internet Centre for Belgium – and you are doing a great job by enriching your expertise on child protection with online safety.

My aim is to get Every European digital, but when it comes to our children, it is essential that they access Internet and its wonders in the safest way. So, what are the challenges?

We are moving on quickly from a world where most children went online from a shared family computer - typically located in their living room. For parents, their support and control was easy to make at a glance. Today, one in three children go online from their mobile phone, and this practice is rising fast. Half of our teenagers go online in their own bedroom.

They aren't merely reading or watching content – they are creating it! Uploading photos or videos, posting blogs and comments on social networks. The list is endless.

We need to embrace this creativity, which helps many youngsters at a difficult stage in life. Did you know, for example, that half of Europe's teenagers find it easier to be "themselves" online than offline? But we have to do it in a way that helps our children see and prevent risks.

This is a tricky area. Maybe you remember having a 'pen pal' from the other side of the world when you were younger. How do we give our kids the 21st century version of this without letting just any stranger into their personal world or abusively being "profiled" for commercial purposes? Today too many teenagers would see no problem giving personal information away to people they have never met face-to-face.

What are the solutions? Who can play a role?

Firstly, let me be clear: the solution cannot be to lock up the internet. Instead, we have to help people use it well. This is the responsibility of parents, teachers and of the children themselves of course. We all learn by trial and error.

This also includes industry taking on greater responsibility for putting in place measures that will keep children using their services and devices safe.

European policy makers like myself will also do their part. For example we require people producing or hosting Internet videos and so on to follow the same rules on the protection of minors as traditional TV broadcasters.

Over the last few years, we have also encouraged EU-wide industry self regulation, as is being done for games through the PEGI rating system. More than 80 % of children and youngsters play games online so PEGI has a real practical impact. The mobile operators and social networking companies are well aware of these challenges. They have signed two separate self-regulatory agreements. Now the European Commission is working with these companies to make sure that, when a child opens an account on a social network, only his/her approved list of "friends" can view his/her profile by default. This may seem simple, but today, one child in four has a fully "public" profile, and I wonder how many have set that option out of mere ignorance. What we do know is that, today, 40 % of kids do not know how to change their online profile. We have also encouraged the Internet players to provide reliable services that answer to requests for help from their users. This is obviously work in progress, so we will report later this Spring on the state of play in Europe.

But we can do more, by catching up with today's challenges, and looking to get ahead of tomorrow's challenges. To do that, we need to bring more people to the table. We need anyone with an interest and the power to improve the sorts of services and devices kids use to get online: we will continue to work with social networking companies and telecom operators, but we will expand the circle to manufacturers of mobile devices and game consoles, Internet service providers, mobile applications and content providers, consumer organisations, researchers and children's organisations.

Of course, at the end of the day, nothing can replace education. Children and parents need to know their rights and responsibilities online. This is the other facet of the European policy to protect children. This is where the Safer Internet Day and centres like Child Focus come in. In more than 65 countries today, organisations like Child Focus are providing the essential links between policy and people. This can be done through very practical things, such as running media literacy courses (France, Spain) or giving the personalised advice (Bulgaria) that will help every child learn how to change their privacy settings on social networks, for example. Today, a number of Safer Internet Centres (Greece, Hungary, Latvia and The Netherlands) are also running their national competition for the European Award for Best Children's Online Content. I'm looking forward to seeing the winners, who will be presented in June.

In the coming months, the Commission will also present reports on how the EU Recommendations on the protection of minors in the audiovisual and online media, and on Video Games, have been implemented.

The second front is fighting harder against illegal content. New laws are needed to tackle child abuse images and cyber-grooming, and we are working to progress holistic rules that cover both online and offline exploitation.

But action can already be taken. If child abuse images are online, they need to come down quickly. The Commission funds the INHOPE hotlines, in 25 EU countries where anyone can report online illegal content. Child Focus is doing this job here in Belgium. At the same time, the Safer Internet Centres run helplines where worried children and their parents can get help. Some of the Centres also operate the 116 number for missing children, like here in Belgium.

This is a joint effort, but we can make Internet a safer place for our youngest generations. By working together we will be able to make every day a Safer Internet Day!

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