EU Safer Social Networking Agreement

On 10 February 2009, 17 social networking sites signed an agreement on a set of Safer Social Networking Principles for the European Union. The principles are not legally binding but represent another step in the European Commission’s campaign against cyberbullying as part of its Safer Internet programme (see IP/08/1899). This mirrors work carried out in the United Kingdom by the Home Office Task Force on Child Protection on the Internet and being taken forward by the new UK Council for Child Internet Safety. The principles represent the Commission’s attempt to harmonise safety policies and procedures across the European Union for providers of social networking services that have a cross-border dimension. As well as raising awareness, the principles lay down default procedures and policies such as the provision of a report abuse button and default privacy settings.

SAFER SOCIAL NETWORKING PRINCIPLES

Principle 1:     Raise awareness of safety education messages and acceptable use policies to users, parents, teachers and carers in a prominent, clear and age-appropriate manner.

Principle 2:     Work towards ensuring that services are ageappropriate for the intended audience.

Principle 3:     Empower users through tools and technology.

Principle 4:     Provide easy-to-use mechanisms to report conduct or content that violates the Terms of Service.

Principle 5:     Respond to notifications of illegal content or conduct.

Principle 6:     Enable and encourage users to employ a safe approach to personal information and privacy.

Principle 7:     Assess the means for reviewing illegal or prohibited content or conduct.

BACKGROUND

The ambit of the agreement on safer networking extends beyond combating cyberbullying, which is characterised as repeated verbal or psychological harassment carried out by an individual or group against others. Such conduct-based risk, which also includes divulging personal information, is just one of four types of online risk to children addressed by the agreement. The others are illegal content, such as images of child abuse and unlawful hate speech; age-inappropriate content, such as pornography or sexual content, violence, or other content with adult themes; and contact-based risk, which relates to inappropriate contact from adults with a sexual interest in children or by young people who solicit other young people.

A basic tenet of the new agreement is that social networking providers, which allow either children or young people and adults to subscribe to their services, have a responsibility to ensure that they have assessed their sites for potential risks and put in place appropriate measures and tools in order to mitigate those risks. Service providers are expected to work collaboratively with other stakeholders including parents, teachers and other carers, governments and public bodies, law enforcement authorities, child protection agencies and the users themselves.

The signatories to the agreement have committed themselves to a deadline of April 2009 to inform the Commission about their individual safety policies and how they will put the principles in place. The sites will also put online information about their safety policies. The Commission will monitor the implementation and in 18 months the stakeholders will review policies and practices with a view to updating the agreement if necessary.

It is incumbent on providers to assess the extent to which specific recommendations apply in their particular case and the principles are not legally binding. However, it is implicit arguably in the Commission’s pledge to monitor and review the implementation that insufficient commitment to the achievement of the agreement’s aims could mean that some of its aspects become mandatory.

COMMENT

There should be nothing in the agreement that takes a sociallyconscious service provider outside its comfort zone. Nonetheless, there are thousands of service providers running blogs, chat rooms and other open forums of varying degrees of sophistication that may not feel obliged to self-regulate in this way. As a result, there is a need for broader initiatives, such as the Commission’s campaign against cyberbullying, of which the networking principles are merely a part. The EU principles are likely to feature in the development of a Child Internet Safety Strategy, which has been identified as one of the priorities for the new UK Council for Child Internet Safety.