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Barnardos Proposals for Child Protection Online

barnardos_logoYesterday Barnardos launched its report entitled Three Hazards: Child Protection in the Electronic Age outlining the dangers to children in the use of new technologies and proposing the introduction of a number of child-protection mechanisms. The report focuses on three primary areas of concern: children’s personal privacy, children’s data protection and the suppression of child sex abuse imagery. In relation to these areas the report makes eight primary recommendations that are discussed after the jump.

1) Urgent consideration should be given to the development of a commercially viable Age Verification and Identity Management (AV/IDM) program for children.

This seems to be an incredibly sensible proposition, particularly if–from a technology perspective–age verification systems of this kind can actually be created in a manner that works. As it stands, as most readers will know, age verification mostly consists of a reader ticking a bok to verify that he or she is X years of age or over; a system that is unlikely to actually prevent children from using particular sites if they are under that age unless they happen to be supervised at the time that the age verification page is shown and the supervising parent or guardian forbids use of the site on the basis of age.

2) A number of amendments are necessary to the Data Protection Act, to create a criminal offence for persons who represent themselves as a child when contacting children through electronic means; to create an offence for any organisation to display personal data belonging to a child; and for other reasons.

3) It must become a legal requirement that all data held in respect of children is subject to proper legal controls and standards. Any organisation wishing to store data relating to children must be licensed to do so. The powers and remit of the Data Protection Commissioner must be extended to cover this area.

Both recommendations 2 & 3 on data protection are sensible and it seems realistic proposals that can be achieved without too much difficulty as they largely mirror the systems currently in place in relation to data relative to adults.

4) A dedicated Paedophile Investigation Unit should be established within the Garda Siochana and publicised in a similar manner to the level of visibility of the UK’s CEOP to deter paedophiles operating through Ireland

This strikes me as a particularly important recommendation. There are now a number of specialist Garda investigative units relating to drugs and human trafficking, for example. The advantage of specialised units lies not only with the capacity to publicise the work of that unit and with the dedication of time to a particular issue, but also with the capacity of the Gardaí to ensure that members of that unit would be provided with high-level specialised training to prepare them to deal sensitively and appropriately with the victims of child sex abuse and, of course, to deal appropriately with the traumas they themselves would face as investigating officers of such offences.

5) The development of legislation (Child Exploitation Material Site Notice and Take Down (Blocking) Policy) to enable the Gardai to operate a blocking system for content on the internet that involves the criminal exploitation and abuse of children. This system would operate, as in other jurisdictions, by internet service providers being advised of the existence of websites carrying such material, and being ordered to take them down. The system must be mandatory for all providers.

I am not going to talk too much about this particular proposal as I am not an expert on such measures. However, from the work of my colleague TJ McIntyre I do know that such measures exist in the UK and in other jurisdictions but, unless designed well and applied with a careful hand, can result in serious difficulties relating to censorship and the unjustifiable blocking of material. Such legislation would, therefore, have to be carefully designed taking expert advice into account.

6) The development of a targeted communications campaign, focussed on parents and children separately, outlining the dangers of online/internet activity.

This of course is vital. Parental supervision of internet activity, the use of ‘nanny filters’ and ensuring that children can not get online without supervision is vital to ensuring that, together, parents and children can discover how to use the internet responsibly and in as safe a manner as possible.

7) The creation of a simple but effective ‘Panic Button’ on sites facilitating interactivity involving children that allows a child that is worried about a developing difficulty to get immediate support from an agency such as Child Line, Parent Line, Hotline, An Garda Siochana, or other organisations participating in this service. This exists in the UK and is highly successful as both an outlet for a concerned child, and a deterrent to a person behaving in a manner not appropriate to that child.

8) The restructure of the Office for Internet Safety to ensure that it is independent of all vested interests, and placed on a statutory footing.

Both proposals 7 & 8 seem to me to be relatively simple but extremely sensible and potentially highly effective, although the word load that would result from staffing the response unit to panic buttons might turn out to be extremely expensive, which may unfortunately be a factor in the current economic climate.

  1. October 23, 2009 at 11:05 am

    Interesting proposals, but as always, they would only be effective if enforced.

    The Data Protection Acts are currently under review (http://www.justice.ie/en/JELR/Pages/WP09000015) and the legislation is certainly in need of reform, given that it is now very much out of sync with contemporary reality. The Barnardos proposals should certainly be considered by the review group (though I’m not certain that the offence of representing oneself as a child when contacting children properly sits in the Data Protection Acts).

    The proposal that it be an offence to display a child’s data is likely to be strongly resisted by industry and one can anticipate their concerns. It may be placing too high a compliance burden on website operators to verify age and identity and imposing an offence (without an adequate verification system) may be seen as an obstacle to the development of ecommerce in Ireland.

    Implementing a ‘licensing’ system for those storing data concerning children could be simple enough, for example by creating a new class of personal data (e.g. “personal data of a minor”) and requiring anyone holding such data to be registered with the Data Protection Commissioner. Such data could also be included within the definition of “sensitive personal data”, thereby attracting greater protection.

    Extending the powers of the Commissioner in this regard will look good on paper but it appears that the Commissioner’s Office is stretched at present and funding will be required to make any reforms effective, not to mention expertise (see http://www.etenders.gov.ie/search/show/Search_View.aspx?id=SEP126320&ln=EN). Again, industry is likely to object to an increased compliance burden.

    Finally, the elephant in the room is the cross-border nature of the internet and the fact that few major social networking sites, etc., are established in the State.

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