EESC Speech – a responsible internet

I was delighted to be invited to speak to the European Economic and Social Committee in Brussels today on the topic of “a responsible internet”. My speech, delivered alongside MEP’s and European Council officials focussed on the aspect of children and the internet, which has been a popular theme in Ireland in recent times:

It’s an honour to speak here today on such an important topic and especially during this crucial time for Ireland as we host the EU Presidency. Today, we are being asked a question: specifically, how do we ensure a more responsible internet without sacrificing its potential?
The answer to that question has three dimensions:
1. Firstly, that there is a clear way for children to safely use the internet without fear of bullying – which has become a huge problem in Ireland and the UK in recent years.
2. Secondly, that citizens have the ability to empower themselves online through digital learning.
3. And thirdly, that society feels secure and protected while they, or their children, are on the internet, for example in relation to how their data is used or who their children are communicating with.

This developing area – helping the Internet grow while potentially putting in place a regulatory framework on social media – is a contentious area which the Irish Government is looking at this week in our own Communications committee.
The media landscape in Ireland is a challenge in this sense, with a number of recent suicides at least partly as a consequence of online bullying, there is pressure to take immediate action here. A poll conducted in Ireland this week showed that 63 per cent of people think schools should ban smartphones and social networks. This gives you an idea of the mood in Ireland currently, and I would venture that it’s not dissimilar throughout Europe. I believe we need to look beyond this for a potentially more responsible Internet, with a more holistic solution that both empowers young people with the best of the Internet while also safeguarding them from the worst of it.

From a European perspective, the European Commissioner for telecoms, Neelie Kroes, has clearly stated the importance of safety for internet access and usage and has said that for the internet to be a safe place for children to learn and work, we need to make sure that they feel comfortable to walk away from anonymous services when necessary.

I wholeheartedly agree. Children must have the ability to exercise their choice but, at the same time, parents must be able to know that they are choosing between a suite of safe options. Our goal in regulating isn’t to take away the element of choice but, rather, to make sure that all the choices meet some minimum standards. They must have clear and accurate information, and they must have the ability to identify individuals with whom they are communicating. It’s a very simple idea, but one which must happen sooner rather than later.

Websites like ask.fm trade on some of the more innocent characteristics of teenage and child users: curiosity, the ability to have people ask questions and give honest answers without repercussions. Yet, with this anonymity, there are many darker aspects, not least the threat of adults interacting with children under the cloak of anonymity. This is a real danger.

For better or worse – though I absolutely believe better – the internet is now very much part of children’s lifestyles today. It has transformed how they are educated, how they educate themselves, how they socialise and how they work. Indeed, it is hardly possible to approach modern childhood – complete with its uncertainties, its possibilities and its dangers – without comprehending the extent to which information and communications technologies are sewn into every aspect of young people’s lives. For us as policy makers, the breakneck pace of change in the technology sector poses another challenge and, as such, effective interventions to protect children as well as promote positive opportunities sometimes struggle to keep pace in an area that continues to change and progress hugely.

Internationally, the overall trend has been to adopt a ‘light touch’ regulatory tactic in relation to the internet, in order to cultivate innovation and spread its benefits among all citizens. Emerging technologies have progressively transformed our classroom environment as well as the learning environment at home, creating greatly improved prospects for learning, new talents and giving access to a wider range of topics than ever before. Teenagers and young people now have a way of naturally integrating new technologies, platforms and systems into their own vernacular in a way that has never been seen before. It’s truly remarkable how far we’ve come, and we now have a fantastic generation of what I see to be potential “digital natives” rather than potential “digital victims”. We need to foster this and encourage this through education, openness, transparency and support.

The digital and online industries are also of huge importance for future employment and prosperity, in Ireland as in Europe. Yet, the digital world is obviously also one of threats and safety of minors has been, and continues to be, a vital priority for policy makers since the internet has become more and more mainstream.

Internet safety is now a priority for governments, child protection groups and those involved in the NGO sector. So the question is, how do we, in an Irish and European context, balance these themes in a way that maximises impact – to ensure that benefits outweigh risks and that protection does not undermine the enablement of children – is a subject that I believe is worth discussing further.

Placing young people at the core of European digital strategy is in our collective interest here today. In Ireland’s case, the digital economy is worth some 5 per cent of GDP. But it’s about more than the numbers and figures and potential contribution: it’s about safety through empowerment, and about allowing our citizens to embody a responsible Internet by knowing how to ignore or shut out the worst aspects of the Internet.

New technologies, new platforms and on-going growth in this sector mean that digital youth engagement is of vital national importance for us and, indeed, for Governments across Europe. Part of the purpose of today from my perspective is to set out the case for prioritising digital opportunities for youth right across Europe while maintaining a responsible Internet – and working to see how all countries can step forward together, harnessing new technology and encouraging digital empowerment while still preserving safety and a responsible Internet.

So, what needs to be done to create this more responsible Internet? Overall, a vigorous infrastructure exists for internet safety in in Europe and at home in Ireland, particularly in relation to monitoring of industry self-regulation and minimising online risks.

Yet, I would argue, this has been achieved to some extent at the expense of online opportunities and that there is substantial scope for promotion of wider and better use of the internet among children, though there need to be safeguards put in place to make sure that children are safe – it is worth having this debate in a patient way that brings in the voices, the experts, that are so abundant in this country.

We must now be aware that many threats to our children’s safety online are coming from externally managed platforms with the ability to anonymise users and no amount of Internet Service Provider participation in regulatory framework is going to assist in this regard. This may require a European solution to what is a cross-border problem. But it may also be solved by simple empowerment: by teaching children that detaching and disengaging from a platform which is providing a negative experience is the best way of dealing with an issue. By pressing that ‘report’ button. By learning what ‘privacy’ is and what it means in the 21st century. In some ways, we have to learn these lessons ourselves before we try to impart them – but they are lessons worth learning.

Ireland is unusual when compared to other countries in terms of its online usage – with a low average number of online activities for a country of reasonably high usage. Therefore, promoting usage habits for all children online, enshrining digital literacy and skills at the core of the education system from the earliest possible age and supporting policy through better research should be the key priorities of a children’s digital strategy.

The goals for Ireland and for Europe in terms of creating a more responsible Internet are one and the same. Indeed, these goals don’t even apply exclusively to youth, they are universal and should be an aspirational goal as we move towards a responsible Internet. For my generation to teach, we may have to learn also.

Firstly, we most promote digital opportunities for children in the form of Government and other key stakeholders coming together to ensure that, in terms of the education system, young people are getting the best possible benefits from digital opportunities that exist.

Secondly, we must develop children’s digital literacy skills, from basics at a young age such as safe internet browsing, video editing, blog creation encompassing word processing to a more advanced stage of young people in secondary education, we must develop these literacy skills in a more rounded way. This also applies to those now out of the education system. Ensuring that people feel empowered and not victimised when online is paramount.

Managing risks and promoting internet safety is best achieved through improving children and young people’s digital literacy skills – but this has implied benefits for adults too, such as knowing how to detect and prevent fraud for consumers.

An assessment of the rights of the child in the contemporary media and communications environment – balancing protection with adequate provision and enabling of participation – presents a welcome opportunity for us making policy in Ireland. Promoting a child’s communication rights supports their wellbeing by having a greater degree of safety and more useful participation, securing their futures through the prism of realising their creative potential, and doing so in the myriad ways that only the internet can offer.

It is through this avenue that Ireland and Europe can promote a more responsible Internet: individual education and empowerment will always be a far more effective tool than centralised policing, though that is not to say that centralised oversight should be ruled out of the equation entirely – and agencies exist already which enshrine standards of internet safety. Ultimately it is a matter of finding a balance and I intend to make sure that Ireland strives to find the right balance.

Thank you for your attention.

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