Every November the Safer Internet Forum, organised by the European Commission, brings together participants from Europe and beyond to discuss the impact of technology on our daily lives, especially children’s experiences. This year it had a special focus on online violence and the promotion of “digital respect”. Claire Bury, Deputy Director-General, sums up the 2019 event and reflects on how we can meet the challenges that lie ahead.

In the same week as the most recent Safer Internet Forum, we marked the 30th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the 20th anniversary of the INHOPE network of the International Association of Internet Hotlines. This worldwide network, co-funded by the EU, coordinates 46 hotlines in 41 countries to which illegal online content and, specifically, child sexual abuse material can be reported. Both initiatives are as important today as they were at their inception, as online violence and abuse affect millions of children around the world. Around half of European teenagers have faced cyberbullying, sexting or disturbing content on the internet, and reports of child sexual abuse material online have increased exponentially in recent years. By taking as its theme the importance of digital respect in challenging online violence, the Safer Internet Forum focused on the targets of violent online behaviour but also on those who have fought back.

A plurality of voices

Over 250 participants – young people, parents and teachers, industry representatives and policy-makers, technological experts, and political, educational and social leaders – listened to testimonials and discussed digital respect. The Forum explored a range of related issues, including misogyny in gaming, sexual violence against boys and men, and the potential of innovative artificial intelligence in preventing and blocking child sexual abuse online. The teams behind deSHAME and SELMA, two EU-funded projects working to tackle online sexual harassment and online hate, also presented their work. In her powerful keynote speech, Thordis Elva, one of the supporters of the #DigitalRespect4Her campaign launched earlier this year by Commissioner Mariya Gabriel, warned that the world is shrinking for some women and girls as a result of online gender-based violence.

But it is always young people whose contributions to the Safer Internet Forum are the most memorable. This time, panellists representing the Better Internet for Kids initiative created a “flipped classroom” and led discussions about many specific types of online violence, from doxxing (maliciously revealing someone's personal information online) to sexting. They had done their “homework” in advance and impressed everyone with their professionalism and teamwork. Young speakers also showed how social media can be used in a positive way to transform victims of disrespect into activists and game changers. In the forum we learned, for example, how upskirting (taking photographs under a woman's clothes without consent) is now, after a nationwide campaign by a young victim, a criminal offence in the UK. The thought-provoking day ended with a celebration of the INHOPE network’s 20th birthday.

Protecting and empowering young people

Now that the party is over, it is time to roll up our sleeves and get back to work. In 2012, the EU launched its European Strategy for a Better Internet for Children, with the aim of protecting children’s online rights through funding, coordination and self-regulation. The digital environment has changed a great deal since then and we are currently reviewing our priorities.

Three institutions have recently demonstrated their political will and attention on this subject. The Commission’s President-elect Ursula Von Der Leyen wants Europe to be fit for the digital age and to make the most of the opportunities it offers within safe and ethical boundaries. This includes providing the next generation with the necessary skills to flourish and develop to become the digital leaders of the 21st century. In its October Conclusions, the Justice and Home Affairs Council of the European Union reaffirmed the EU's and Member States’ commitment to fight against the sexual abuse and exploitation of children, and also highlighted the importance of the role of civil society, including the INHOPE hotlines. The European Parliament has also allocated funds for a new pilot project, to be managed by DG Connect, to improve cooperation between industry, NGOs and Member States' authorities for the swift removal of online child sexual abuse material.

The digital world, however, knows no borders, and in this crucial area the EU needs to work with public authorities, researchers and the technology industry, as well as international bodies like the UN, the Council of Europe and the OECD, to make the internet better and safer for everyone. Just as we parents and other adults help our children to grow up safe, healthy and confident in the physical world, we need to make sure they feel just as secure in its digital equivalent. And to do so, as was concluded by the youth representatives in the Forum, adults need to be educated and informed so that they in turn can educate children.

After the inspiring and vibrant Safer Internet Forum 2019, we are already looking forward to the next milestone in the ongoing challenge for better internet: Safer Internet Day 2020. Stay tuned!