Advocacy for child protection online has tended to flow against the tide of a dominant liberal discourse concerning the internet which posits that either the internet should not be regulated or that it can’t actually be regulated at all. Regulatory trends in Great Britain, in Europe and in the wider international arena have promoted models of co- or self-regulation whereby industries themselves with varying degrees of partnership or oversight by relevant state agencies practice ‘light-touch’ regulation based on codes established within industry fora with minimalist prescriptions on content and with ultimate responsibility for risk exposure shifted to the end user.
The dominant discourse of this regulatory approach is framed both within an economic logic which argues that impediments placed in the way of an emerging new media ecology will have negative consequences for competitiveness and economic development as well as within a libertarian framework that gives primacy to adult rights to freedom of speech over and above ancillary issues of public interest. In this context, promotion of the interests of children online has met with significant challenges, and child protection measures are frequently viewed as a threat to privacy and freedom of expression rights.
However, as we argue in this paper, regulation of the internet in some form is increasingly accepted on an international legislative basis and is supported and necessitated by a growing evidence base of the risks of exposure to harmful content and practices. The EU Kids Online project, supported by the European Commission’s Safer Internet Programme is designed to enhance knowledge regarding European children’s use, risk and safety online. A key objective of the project is to inform policy on regulating for a safer internet environment based on the principle of promoting opportunities and minimizing risk. The project is conducting original empirical research across member states with nationally representative samples of children aged 9-16 years old and their parents on prominent online risks including exposure to inappropriate content (e.g. pornographic, self-harm and violent content, racist/hate material), unwelcome contact (e.g. grooming, sexual harassment, bullying, abuse of personal information and privacy) and inappropriate conduct by children themselves (e.g. bullying, abuse of privacy). Reviewing existing regulatory and child protection measures in these areas, we argue that the emerging evidence of risks encountered by children will provide a base for reconceptualising online safety as not just a matter of individual responsibility on the part of social actors (children, parents and families) but as a balance between educational initiatives and structurally defined public (and children’s) interests inscribed in internet legislation and regulation.