Academic Publication

Children’s Rights Online: Challenges, Dilemmas and Emerging Directions

Authors:
Sonia Livingstone
Brian O'Neill
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Publication Year:
2014
  • SDG 9 - Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure
  • SDG 16 - Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions

In this academic publication, authors Sonia Livingstone and Brian O'Neill investigate the implications of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child on technology governance and policy. 

2.1 Positioning Children’s Rights Within Debates over Internet Governance

Although it is widely held that a more inclusive and trusted Internet can support a competitive knowledge economy, a digitally skilled labour force, civic participation and a pluralistic media sector, governments and regulators have tended to avoid intervening directly to achieve these aims, believing that industry is best positioned to respond to the fast pace of change in information and communication technologies (ICT).1 This reflects a wider policy shift away from top-down government measures towards flexible, dispersed and indirect forms of governance, encompassing industry self-regulation as well as elements of cooperation or co- regulation with relevant state agencies.2

In these debates, the interests of children figure unevenly and can prove surprisingly contentious. Only partial progress has been made in supporting children’s rights online and there have been a number of significant hurdles.3 In the early days of the Internet, public policy concern for children-centred on inappropriate content, since it seemed that pornography of all kinds was pushed via pop-ups and other uninvited means into users’ emails and web searches, along with efforts to prevent grooming and related paedophilic contact risks. In the US, early legislative responses were heavy-handed, risking contravention of fundamental rights to freedom of expression (as established by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 and as afforded legal protection in the US by the First Amendment).4 But approaches to Internet governance have since shifted from the (largely, but not entirely discredited) view that ‘cyberspace’ is a distinct sphere in need of distinct regulation to the growing acceptance that what is illegal or inappropriate offline is or should be illegal or inappropriate online. This approach, now concerned with a range of risks far beyond that of pornography, has largely guided European policies, is our main focus in this chapter.5

Yet, even the effort to apply offline regulation and governance practices online tends to conflict with liberal and libertarian efforts to keep the Internet open and free (e.g. Open Rights Group).6 Consequently, advocacy for children’s empowerment and protection online has seemed to swim against the tide of a dominant liberal discourse which posits that the Internet should not be regulated if this undermines freedom of expression, that it cannot easily be regulated through law, and/or that there are higher priorities than those of children’s interests. These include, from media reform activists, principles of ‘net neutrality’ and Internet ‘generativity’ 7 and, from business interests, policies for market freedom and economic competitiveness. In this context, children’s rights and protection measures are readily viewed as a threat to adult rights or as a secondary complication in the larger debate over citizens’ rights versus the rights of the state or commerce. At worst, they figure as covert efforts to promote the state’s power to survey, censor or even criminalise private citizens’ acts.8

As Alderson explains, ‘‘Rights are collective not individual, ‘ours’ not ‘mine’. Anyone’s claim to a right automatically states concern for everyone else’s equal claim to it.’’9 Can society find a way to advance children’s rights online without unduly trampling on business or (adult) citizens’ interests? As the Internet and surrounding debates have matured, there is growing acceptance that diverse forms of governance, including but not only national or international intervention, are required to facilitate online opportunities while also reducing or managing the associated risks. This conclusion has been reached not only by child rights advocates but also those concerned with citizen and consumer rights and those concerned to sustain a secure and trusted online infrastructure for commerce, civil society and the state.10 After all, as Lessig influentially observed,11 early utopian cheerleading for the so-called freedom of the Internet has had to recognise that the Internet is already governed through its design, code and practises of use— although much of this remains experimental and open to negotiation, given the competing interests at stake. 

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