Sonia LivingstoneIn November 2015, the Internet Governance Forum will focus on the theme of ‘policy options for connecting the next billion’. Following publication of her co-authored report ‘One in three: internet governance and children’s rights’, Professor Sonia Livingstone discusses how internet governance needs to consider the specific rights and needs of children, both in terms of protection from harm as well as the right to access and use digital media.

According to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, children below the age of 18 possess the full range of human rights enjoyed by adults. As legal minors undergoing crucial processes of human development, they have additional rights too – to play, to parenting, to develop to their full potential, and so forth.

The recent international NETmundial initiative, an important international effort on internet governance, observed that the “rights that people have offline must also be protected online”. Such an idea is not new: over a decade ago the 2003 phase of the World Summit on the Information Society adopted the Geneva Declaration of Principles and Plan of Action in which the position of children was expressly recognised:

“We are committed to realising our common vision of the Information Society for ourselves and for future generations. We recognise that young people are the future workforce and leading creators and earliest adopters of ICTs. They must therefore be empowered as learners, developers, contributors, entrepreneurs and decision-makers. We must focus especially on young people who have not yet been able to benefit fully from the opportunities provided by ICTs. We are also committed to ensuring that the development of ICT applications and operation of services respects the rights of children as well as their protection and well-being.”

Yet, over the past decade or so, the complex tapestry of organisations that now constitute internet governance has barely recognised the distinctive rights and needs of children as a substantial group of internet users.

For its meeting in November 2015, the Internet Governance Forum chose as its theme ‘policy options for connecting the next billion’. In my paper, ‘One in three: internet governance and children’s rights’, co-authored with Jasmina Byrne and John Carr and just published by CIGI in time for the forum, we estimate that 300 million of that number will be children, most of them in developing nations. This represents a significant responsibility for many key actors, and for global internet governance bodies. How will they meet it? As report co-author John Carr comments:

“The internet’s achievements are spectacular and beyond doubt but what this report reminds us is that for all that the internet has worked to change the world’s economy, has changed the way we do politics and hold governments to account, it is also a medium for children. Policy makers need to fix that prosaic but profound fact firmly in their minds whenever they think or talk about the future of the internet or its governance.”

So far, internet governance organisations have sought an age-generic (or ‘age-blind’) approach to ‘users’. But children have specific needs and rights that are not met by governance regimes designed for ‘everyone’ – and too often, provision for ‘users’ in general embeds assumptions in practice about their being adults, thereby failing to meet children’s rights in practice. Even when specific provision is made for children, it focuses heavily on child protection, especially in relation to illegal activities that threaten children. This is important, for sure. But beyond this, children’s rights to protection must somehow be balanced against their rights to participation, since addressing the former in isolation risks the unintended consequence of infringing the latter. Such crucial subtleties have been signally lacking in the various multistakeholder policies, Internet Bills of Rights and other regulation increasingly proposed and promoted around the world.

Indeed, I find it astonishing how often policy makers debate internet governance as if all users were adults or, failing that, carefully protected by informed parents. Our report argues against an age-generic or age-blind approach to internet provision and governance, drawing on growing international evidence that a substantial minority of internet users are minors and that many encounter risk unsupported.

In addition to addressing issues of child protection in the online domain, we argue that policy and governance should now ensure children’s rights to access and use of digital media and the deployment of the internet by the wider society to advance children’s rights across the board. As internet use rises in developing countries, international internet governance organisations face a key challenge in shaping, through multi-stakeholder processes, the emerging models of best practice that will underpin the development of positive norms recognised by states, parents and other relevant parties. Jasmina Byrne observes that:

“Implementation of child rights in the digital age requires not only adherence to human rights and values, but also empowerment and participation of child users in ways which foster their creativity, innovation and societal engagement.”

We therefore recommend that internet governance organisations acknowledge and address the fact that an estimated one in three internet users are children.

  • While States and public institutions bear the primary responsibility to ensure the realisation of children’s rights through the creation of legislative and policy frameworks, rights frameworks now encompass the activities and responsibilities of business also, and this applies to the internet industry as much as any other.
  • In the multi-stakeholder context of internet governance, parents and children (and their representatives) should be recognized and included as significant stakeholders. This will require specific efforts and the development of appropriate mechanisms of participation and inclusion.
  • In addition to supporting a constructive dialogue between internet governance and child rights organisations, it is important for internet governance to develop mechanisms to represent and implement children’s rights online. To develop these, internet governance organisations could explicitly draw on the experience of child rights organisations (or children’s commissioners or ombudspersons) based on their established work in other domains. Since questions of child protection seem especially likely to trigger critical concerns over internet governance in terms of its remit, accountability and forms of redress, it is vital that internet governance bodies find ways to establish their legitimacy in relation to all stakeholders, including children and those who represent children’s rights.

To underpin the above efforts, an evidence base is required. The risks and opportunities afforded to children by ‘the internet’ are far from simple or universal, and they are too little understood especially in the global South and in relation to emerging digital technologies. To ground this research enterprise, internet governance organisations should ensure that important information about children’s internet access and use is collected so that it is known how many children use the internet and which inequalities or other problems exist.

This article gives the views of the author and does not represent the position of the LSE Media Policy Project blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.