Industry coalition's 'safer Internet' plan criticized on all sides

The work of the European Commission-sponsored Coalition for Safer Internet has been branded both vague and dangerous

Civil liberties activists and a prominent child protection advocate have criticized the work of an industry coalition to make the Internet a safer place for children.

Guidelines developed by the coalition were released to mark the European Union's Safer Internet Day on Tuesday. The coalition was set up at the request of the European Commission and is known as the CEO Coalition or the Coalition for Safer Internet.

Over the past year, members of the coalition, including Facebook, Google, Vodafone, Apple, Microsoft and Nintendo, have been meeting to draw up voluntary guidelines to make the Internet safer for children.

The work of the coalition was broken into five areas: parental controls, content classification, age-appropriate privacy settings, reporting tools and notice and takedown. The European Union's Digital Agenda Commissioner; Neelie Kroes, said she was pleased with the work the companies had done, and looked forward to implementation in 2013.

However, John Carr, member of the Executive Board of the U.K. Council on Child Internet Safety, was not convinced, saying in a blog post that some parts of the agenda were at least six years out of date.

"The differences between platforms and types of services covered by the companies involved meant the draft statements contained a quite bewildering array of highly diffuse and disparate information. While some attempt had been made to establish a common format, it didn't work," he wrote.

European digital rights group EDRi said the coalition started poorly by failing to identify any specific problems that needed solving. "Solutions to the unknown problems were to be found by industry, in the blind faith that whatever industry suggested would at least partly be an answer to questions that had not been asked," EDRi said in a statement.

The 27 companies involved in the self-regulatory exercise said they will collectively set a new benchmark for child protection online using tools to report online abuse or bullying, content ratings for apps, online videos and films, and age-appropriate privacy settings.

Carr said the responses differed widely in quality. "Some edged towards saying 'This is what we are doing, like it or lump it as we're unlikely to do anything else.' By contrast, other companies peppered their papers with promises about several new things they will do during 2013," he wrote.

EDRi was particularly critical of Facebook and Microsoft. It said that Facebook had "obvious vested interests" and should not have been in charge of the privacy working group, while Microsoft used the notice and takedown group to lobby for upload filtering by default as an industry standard in Europe.

Although EDRi found the project's output ranged from "the irrelevant to the incoherent and even the dangerous," it saw some useful developments, including plans for a Commission-funded, searchable database of current practice, giving up-to-date information about companies' privacy settings.

EDRi also praised the working group on parental controls. "The final document notes that numerous tools appeared on the market since the start of the project, but stressed the limitations of technical tools and said that the solution lies in a balance between tools and education of parents and children. Nokia's insistence on permanent review of experience and evidence was a very welcome exception to the approach followed by the CEO Coalition more generally," said EDRi.

A technical task force involving Deutsche Telekom, Nokia, Orange, Telefónica, Vodafone and others will work in 2013 "to align content systems and ensure that devices will be able to determine the age-classification of materials". Meanwhile the Commission will set up a Corporate Responsibility platform to monitor the results of the coalition and merge it with other self-regulatory streams.

The average age for first going online in Europe is seven. 38 percent of 9 to 12 year olds who are online say they have a social networking profile, in spite of age restrictions imposed by some social networks. More than 30 percent of children who go online do so from a mobile device, and 26 percent via game consoles.

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