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Protecting children in cyberspace

The internet is a neutral tool for disseminating data, which can be used for good or for ill. On the one hand, for example, it has enormous potential as a source of education for people of all ages and capacities. On the other hand, the internet can be used to set online traps to exploit users for criminal purposes. Among those who are most vulnerable to such traps are children.

Discussions at WSIS

 The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) included discussion of how best to protect children from online predators, while also encouraging the positive use by young people of information and communications technologies (ICT). In the Geneva Declaration of Principles and Plan of Action, agreed by world leaders in December 2003, "all actors in the information society" are urged to take action and preventive measures against the use of ICT for any form of child abuse. This principle was echoed in the Tunis Commitment and the Tunis Agenda that resulted from the second phase of WSIS in November 2005 (see box).

New types of risk in cyberspace are growing with the emergence of new devices, such as mobile internet access, peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing, instant messaging, chat rooms, multi-player interactive games and web cameras. The impact on children was highlighted at a meeting arranged by the organization End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography, and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes (ECPAT), based in Thailand, and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) during WSIS in Tunis. At this meeting, ECPAT presented its new report, "Violence against Children in Cyberspace," which had been compiled as part of a United Nations study on violence against children. "This report gives the global community no excuse for saying that we didn’t know’ or ‘we couldn’t foresee’ the exponentially increasing violence caused to children in relation to new information and communication technologies," says UN study leader Professor Paulo Pinheiro in the report’s introduction.

"The global community (has) no excuse for saying that ‘we didn’t know’ or ‘we couldn’t foresee’
 the exponentially increasing violence caused to children in relation to new information and communication technologies."

Professor Paulo Pinheiro, leader of a UN study on violence against children



The Tunis Commitment and the
Tunis Agenda for the Information Society recognize the needs of children and young people and their protection in cyberspace.

The Tunis Commitment

"We recognize the role of information and communications technologies (ICT) in the protection of children and in enhancing the development of children. We will strengthen action to protect children from abuse and defend their rights in the context of ICT. In that context, we emphasize that the best interests of the child are a primary consideration." (Paragraph 24.)

The Tunis Agenda

"We reaffirm our commitment to providing equitable access to information and knowledge for all, recognizing the role of ICT for economic growth and development. We are committed to working towards achieving… internationally agreed development goals and objectives, including the Millennium Development Goals, by… incorporating regulatory, self-regulatory, and other effective policies and frameworks to protect children and young people from abuse and exploitation through ICT into national plans of action and e-strategies." (Paragraph 90q.)

"We encourage countries, including all other interested parties, to make available child helplines, taking into account the need for mobilization of appropriate resources. For this purpose, easy-to-remember numbers, accessible from all phones and free of charge, should be made available." (Paragraph 92.)



Parents should keep a careful watch over what their children find on the internet


A growing trade in abuse

Panelists at the WSIS meeting expressed growing concerns about the ease with which people who are intent on harming children move between the physical and virtual worlds. It is believed that over one million children are exploited in a global commercial sex trade each year that is estimated to be worth up to USD 20 billion. Meanwhile, child abuse in the virtual world was said to have escalated into a lucrative business.

According to EPCAT, attacks against children through new technologies are "pervasive (and) cause deep and lasting physical and psychological damage." These attacks include child pornography and "live" online sexual abuse for paying customers, online sexual solicitation, cyber stalking and bullying, and access to illegal and harmful materials. Criminals also use cyberspace to arrange tourism for paedophiles and the trafficking of children.

Although most attention has been on chat rooms as an avenue for sexual predators to target and "groom" young people for later abuse, children are now switching to instant messaging and peer networking technologies, which are even harder to monitor. These file-sharing technologies are also becoming a major tool for traders in sexual images. The meeting heard that the scale and changing forms of online attacks against children are outstripping the existing capacities of legislation and law enforcement agencies, and of society’s understanding of how the technologies work.

More action needed

Greater cooperation is required at the policy-making level and among private sector players. The meeting particularly urged governments, educators, parents and internet companies to act together to prevent this criminal activity. It called on internet service providers and software companies to develop voluntary codes of conduct to prevent abuse, and to make available inexpensive software to block pornography from computers. According to most panelists, tough new laws are needed in many countries to fight abuse. International conventions and global industry standards are also seen as crucial. The Convention on Cybercrime, initiated by the Council of Europe, is one important starting point, as the first binding instrument to deal with child abuse in cyberspace. The Convention is open to all countries of the world.


Ubiquitous access to the internet can be fun, but it may also present a danger to children


Combating predators

Various international projects have been started, to eradicate the bad and to encourage the good in use of the internet.

Police forces are increasingly aware of online exploitation of children. An example of international cooperation in this area is the Virtual Global Taskforce that was created in 2003 as an alliance of Interpol and law enforcement agencies in Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The taskforce received a 2006 award from the UK Internet Service Providers’ Association, in recognition of its work in making cyberspace safer for children.

Meanwhile, technical solutions too are being offered to parents, through the use of filtering software packages that can block certain types of online content. And various organizations are providing internet portals that are specially designed and monitored to give children safe links to legitimate websites.

An example of action by a private body is Dimdima Kids, (, an online children’s magazine from India that also provides safe discussion areas and links to a large amount of material for education and entertainment. Named for the Sanskrit word meaning "drumbeat," it is operated by a unit of the educational foundation, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. In Australia, an instance of public sector action can be seen in the NetAlert Cybersafe Schools programme that has been developed by the country’s internet safety advisory body, NetAlert ( It introduces children at primary and secondary schools to both the potential and the pitfalls of the internet. Small children too are catered for, in the specially designed website "Netty’s World."

Using the internet to help

Another type of global portal for children ( has been launched by Child Helpline International (CHI), a non-profit organization that is a partner in ITU’s Connect the World initiative. It comprises a global network of helplines with 81 members in 71 countries. Together, they receive around 11 million calls every year. "Telephone outreach services," it says,"can link children to immediate rescue and safety; can provide solutions at the end of a phone and, where necessary, back up the voice of young people with direct interventions and advocacy."

At the World Telecommunication Development Conference in Doha in March 2006, an agreement that will provide funds for the portal was signed by ITU, CHI and the Netherlands’ Ministry of Economic Affairs. The portal provides a safe gateway to link children to helpline services, such as counselling via e-mail, or secure chat rooms. In this way, CHI hopes to reach out to young people who need help but do not want to use a telephone helpline. This sector of users is growing, and thousands of e-mails are being received annually around the world.



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