As The World Wide Web and the Convention on the Rights of the Child Both Turn Thirty, the Web Can Help to Secure Children’s Basic Rights
Three decades ago, as the 1980s came to an end, revolution was in the air. The Berlin wall came crashing down and the dust that rose from it carried the hopes of a generation of Germans for reunification and peace, and a sign of hope to a watching world.
At the same time, 700 miles away at the CERN laboratory† near Geneva, a young software engineer named Tim Berners-Lee was focused on his own revolution, triggered by the difficulties in sharing information between the computers in CERN’s vast network. Tim had written a memorandum to his boss called “Information Management: A Proposal”. In its modesty and apparent ordinariness, it could hardly have felt more different from the sense of history in the making under the Brandenburg Gate. And yet, the World Wide Web Tim envisioned in that memo would go on to change our world, expanding access to knowledge and freedom of expression more than any other development in modern times.
But there was one more quiet revolution underway in Geneva. While Tim was tinkering at CERN, over at the Palais des Nations, UN negotiators were concluding a ten-year process involving governments, activists and experts worldwide to negotiate a set of fundamental rights held by children.1 The Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 20 November 1989 and since then, it has transformed millions of children’s lives around the world.
While these were three separate phenomena, today they seem intertwined as one thread. The demolition of a barrier to the dreams of a new generation. The creation of a means by which those young people could access, share knowledge, and claim their rights like never before. And a radical charter to articulate and defend those rights, for the youngest members of society.
Just over half of the world is now online and UNICEF estimates that one in three internet users are children. All around us, we have examples of young people using the web to innovate, express themselves, share knowledge and connect with people globally, in ways that weren’t possible three decades ago.
But for all of the web’s great benefits, it is not the unambiguous public good it was intended to be. Many children and young people don’t have it at all, and those who do face a growing number of risks online. We need to make sure all children can access the web and use it safely.
Half the world is still missing out on the web’s benefits. Those offline are disproportionately female, poor and live in rural areas. About 29% of youth‡ worldwide are not online, around 346 million individuals.2 Gender and economic inequalities mean men are 12% more likely than women to be using the internet, and 60% of young people in Africa are not online, compared with only 4% not online in Europe.3
For those who are online, the web is delivering tremendous benefits, but it is also coming at a cost. The web children access today has a host of problems, from data breaches and censorship, to misinformation, bullying, surveillance, discriminatory algorithms and risks of child abuse and exploitation. And the challenges facing children online are growing. For example:
The recently released report of the Broadband Commission, of which I am a member, on child safety online shines a light on the harms facing children including sexual abuse, online harassment, exposure to misinformation and age-inappropriate content.4
In the UK, 79% of 12-15-year-old internet users claim they’ve faced at least one potentially harmful experience online in the past 12 months.5
At the Web Foundation, our own research with teenagers in low and middle-income countries shows the challenges of social media and privacy. We’ve heard from teenagers including an eleven-year-old outlining how “Sometimes, I feel like I don’t have privacy anymore. Even if I do not post often in my accounts, people will still see me in tagged posts, comments, from albums of someone else. Social media has become invasive.”6 The dry words of the UNCRC, stating that “no child shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy” suddenly seem deeply relevant.
This is not the web that Tim Berners-Lee intended and it must not be the web of the future.
When I joined the Web Foundation as CEO in 2017, my colleagues told me about a boy in a community they had worked with in Pretoria, South Africa. This child was disappearing from home every night for several hours. After a while, his parents discovered he was travelling several miles across town to use a free public Wi-Fi connection. When they asked him why he did it, he said: “At home, I live in a shack. When I go online, I don’t live in a shack”.
That boy’s story stuck with me. It’s impossible not to be thrilled at the possibility and adventure the web has opened up for him. The web he connects to today is complex, more resembling an entire city than the limited information-sharing system of CERN 30 years ago. As Tim Berners-Lee himself has said, “The web has become a public square, a library, a doctor’s office, a shop, a school, a design studio, an office, a cinema, a bank, and so much more.”7 Though exciting, this expanding online world is also disconcerting. Just as it gives young people like this boy new opportunities, it exposes them to a new world of threats. We have a duty to protect young people from the harms they face online.
In the physical places where we live, children are – at least to some degree – protected.
What if we thought about the web in the way we think about our villages and towns, with children in mind? A child-friendly approach to the web would create an online experience that is accessible, safe and empowering for children. And given the challenges all of us face online, it might just appeal to a lot of adults too.
Imagine a web where all children have access, where their rights are protected, where design takes account of their distinct needs, where significant spaces are specifically for children and where harms to children are not tolerated. How would that look? How can that be achieved?
Nine ideas to get us started come to mind:
Safe spaces for children online. The entire web community (including governments and companies) should ensure there are allocated safe spaces for children online, just like playgrounds in the offline world where they can explore and play under supervision.
Child-focused risk assessments. Governments and companies who provide online services to children should have dedicated methods for identifying and mitigating risks, primarily through risk assessments.
Data protection and consent. Children should not have sensitive data, like health or location data, collected about them without their parents’ consent as well as their own.
Strong privacy settings by default. Websites should set default privacy settings to “high”, which is good for children and adults alike. Users of any age shouldn’t be burdened by having to choose more privacy-protective settings.
Protections from adult contact. Governments and companies should ensure meaningful protections are in place to prevent adult strangers from contacting children online via social media.
Features to help children stay safe. Companies should use “nudges” to help children have a safer and more empowering experience online, from reminding them to check their privacy settings to encouraging them to report bullying or harassment to companies, parents, educators or law enforcement.
Digital literacy training. Governments should invest in digital literacy training and curricula for children, with a focus on how they can use the web in ways that are safe and empowering.
Tools for parents. Parents need tools to talk to their children about using apps and services, and ways to review their children’s privacy settings.
Restrictions on advertising. Targeted advertising to children should be strictly limited and online marketing of certain products, such as high fat, salt and sugar food and drinks, and alcohol, should be prohibited.
These kinds of protections are consistent with an online community that looks out for children, as any community should. Around the world, some cities are going even further to improve the lives of children through “child-friendly city” initiatives guided by the UNCRC.8 These cities are taking additional steps to ensure children have active, engaged and safe lives, and are protected from exploitation, violence and abuse, supported by governments, civil society, companies, academia and with children themselves at the centre.9
If we can build a child-friendly city, perhaps now is the time to build a child-friendly web. We’ll need the same broad involvement of actors to make this a reality. The community needed to protect young people on the web must include parents and schools to equip children to be safe online, governments implementing protections such as legislated standards and default privacy settings, and companies proactively managing their platforms in the interests of children. Child-focused organisations, such as 5Rights and UNICEF, and global internet governance organisations such as the Broadband Commission should also be involved.
Finally, to protect children online, we need a coordinated global effort to safeguard the web itself for all humanity. To do this, Tim Berners-Lee and the Web Foundation are building a Contract for the Web grounded on human rights to safeguard the future of the Web. The process has involved nearly 300 companies (including Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Telefonica, Twitter, and Pango), more than 100 civil society organisations (including Avaaz, CIPESA, The NewNow, and the Wikimedia Foundation), ten national governments (including France, Germany, Gambia, Ghana, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, the UK and Uruguay) and more than 8,000 citizens from around the world.
In November 2019, we launched the Contract for the Web. Now for the first time ever, we have a global plan of action created by experts and citizens from across the world to make sure our online world is safe, empowering and genuinely for everyone.
The Contract lays out a vision for the web we want and provides a roadmap for the policies and actions we need to get there. It sets the standards we must meet to achieve a safe and empowering web for all, and lays out the direction for future policy solutions. These standards include making sure everyone can connect to the internet all of the time, ensuring our data is protected, and reducing online hate by strengthening community-building online. It provides governments, companies and citizens with concrete actions they can and must take to build a better web.
The Contract will also give civil society and individuals a tool to push governments and companies to adopt the right laws and policies. And it gives us a way to measure how well those governments and companies are doing so we can hold them accountable.
Together we can create an approach that protects the web as an open and free space, and one that is accessible, safe and empowering. That would be great for children. It might just make a better web for all of us, too.