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OPINION: On Safer Internet Day, building a digital world young people deserve

by Beeban Kidron | 5Rights Foundation
Tuesday, 9 February 2021 14:00 GMT

ARCHIVE PICTURE: A child in first grade uses a new laptop as part of the Canaima project at a Bolivarian school in Caracas September 23, 2009. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Government and companies like Tik Tok are reforming the digital world young people occupy but there is more work to be done

Baroness Beeban Kidron OBE is the Founder and Chair of 5Rights. She is a Crossbench member of Britain’s House of Lords and sits on the Democracy and Digital Technologies Committee

Here we are again, Safer Internet Day, an annual event that now takes place in 170 countries. This year's theme an internet we can trust which begs the question are we any closer to that than we were this time last year – perhaps we are.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child is the single most important expression of children’s rights and the needs of childhood and is the basis for much domestic legislation in relation to children around the world. Last Thursday the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child adopted General Comment 25 on children’s rights in relation to the digital environment. Following the adoption of the Comment, the 196 States who are signatories to the Convention on the Rights of the Child will now have to report formally on its provisions. Its adoption makes explicit - for the first time - that children’s rights apply in the digital world. 

The culture and practice of the digital environment is inseparable from any other aspect of childhood.  Children want – and need – to be a part of the digital world; not just as users of digital products, services and platforms, but as creators, decision-makers and as citizens, both now and in the future. The General Comment sets out the responsibilities of all parties, most particularly states and business to ensure that they do so in a safe and rights respecting way.

This milestone is not happening in isolation.  The introduction here in the UK of a code of practise to protect children’s privacy online, fundamentally changes the way companies can collect and use children’s personal data and requires that they design their products and services to put the child’s best interests first. Despite not coming into full effect until later this year, we are starting to see long overdue steps on child safety taking place.

Last month TikTok announced changes aimed at increasing protections for children. Under the new measures, TikTok users under the age of 16 will have their account set to private as default. Under 16s will not be recommended as ‘friends or contacts’ to other users and comments will be limited to friends only. These changes are just some of very many seen from the global companies that dominate children’s online experience, and the Code is just the beginning.

We now have the parameters of the UK Government's Online Safety Bill, and whilst there are many issues still to be resolved, child safety has been put front and centre of the proposals. Meanwhile in Europe the Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act both promise radical reform of the status quo.  And, in the U.S., Joe Biden’s administration is looking at the tech sector impact on democracy, business, and users. The President has also committed to reviewing s.230 of the US Communications Decency Act 1996 - a measure which has been used to absolve the tech sector of many of its responsibilities to users and society more broadly. All of this adds up and could be evidence of a broader new era of an internet we – might be able to - trust.

For 5Rights, the steering group led by Professor Sonia Livingstone OBE, the hundreds of experts, 40 nation states and over one thousand children in 27 countries who supported the creation of the Comment on the Digital Environment –   its adoption is an extraordinary moment - a breakthrough in how we conceive of the responsibilities of those who design build and profit from the digital world.

There is still much to do, but today we celebrate all those who like 5Rights are working to  build the digital world that young people deserve – and wish all children happy safer internet day!