Recently I attended an extremely interesting meeting at Google’s offices in Brussels. Principally it was a briefing on a range of initiatives the company is taking in the field of online child safety and about their efforts to make the internet a better place for kids. There were several references to how Google co-operates with external agencies.
One of those agencies is a German organization called Jugendschutz.net. Literally translated the main part of their name means child protection. The addition of net makes clear that is the principal focus of their work.
Youth protection and the media in Germany
Germany has a federal system. The key responsibility for media regulation resides not in Berlin but with the the individual states – the Länder. There are sixteen of them. Yet Germany has nationally agreed laws on youth protection in the media. These are reflected in an Interstate Treaty.
The mandate, role and functions of Jugendschutz are defined in the Treaty, the 2003 version of which also created the Commission for the Protection of Minors in the Media (KJM). KJM is constituted as the supervisory authority for the implementation of the Treaty. It can institute enforcement proceedings and issue fines.
Jugendschutz and the KJM
Article 18 (1) of the Treaty makes clear that Jugendschutz and the KJM are organizationally linked. One of Jugendschutz’s key roles is to remind internet service providers, platform operators and others of their responsibilities to children and young people. As far as I have been able to understand it, in essence where Jugendschutz cannot succeed by persuasion or reminding KJM may choose to step in and use its legal powers. That’s an interesting relationship.
In UK terms Jugendschutz itself is therefore more akin to an Internet watchdog. Research and assessments of cases and new online phenomena are an important part of its brief. However, it also acts as one of Germany’s three hotlines dealing with child abuse images, and gives advice to parents, children and the world at large on how to make the internet a better place for kids. Quite an agenda.
Seemingly persuasion and reminding often works
Jugendschutz has built up a great reputation within Germany both with German and foreign owned internet businesses that operate there. Companies listen carefully to what it has to say although that may well be against a background of knowing that if they don’t the KJM could get involved. The iron first inside a velvet glove.
In Brussels the Google people acknowledged they had often acted to remove content because of representations made to them by Jugendschutz i.e. without there being a formal requirement for them so to do. Google said they were able to respond in this way because Jugendschutz is an authoritative and legally constituted body. Quite so. Other social media do likewise.
What are the online child protection issues in Germany?
So what kind of things has Jugendschutz drawn to the attention of Google and other online enterprises with a view to getting them taken down? At the Brussels meeting a specific question came up about anorexia web sites. Here are extracts from recent annual reports published by Jugendschutz
2011: Eating disorders: still numerous websites glorifying anorexia
Youngsters suffering from eating disorders can find many opportunities to contact like-minded users on the Internet. They specifically interact in communities and often encourage each other in their high-risk activities.
The number of pro-anorexia websites remains high (616). However, only half of the content could be found on traditional websites (341; 2010: 423), the rest shifted to Web 2.0 services. There, the risk of a negative impact on children and youngsters is greater than on traditional websites mostly only known by insiders.
78% of the content was in breach of youth protection laws and in 83% of the cases the actions taken resulted in removal of the content.
2012: Pro-Ana sites: increasingly disguised as harmless
On all platforms popular among young persons Jugendschutz.net found content glorifying or promoting eating dis-orders, self-injury or suicide. Platform operators are challenged to take appropriate action, but it is also important to raise users’ awareness of risks.
The number of websites glorifying anorexia has further dropped (2012: 220; 2011: 341; 2010: 423). Here, the efforts of Jugendschutz.net to have endangering content removed and to sensitize communities about the risks have paid off.
However, in 2012, a new movement emerged not openly displaying and glorifying anorexia, but promoting a positive image under the cover of “with Ana”. The website pretends to raise awareness of the problem, but it actually confirms those already suffering from it. Jugendschutz will closely look at this aspect of the problem in 2013.
The number of websites promoting self-injury increased: 36 cases, i.e. three times as many as in 2011. Three out of four websites violated youth protection laws.
Broader provisions of the Interstate Treaty
The scope of the Treaty is impressive. For example Article 19 specifies the conditions under which the KJM may approve self-regulatory codes for organizations wishing to promote or engage with online child protection.
Article 10 provides for the certification of technical measures e.g. age verification, which help protect children from age inappropriate items.
Article 6 addresses the Protection of minors in advertising and teleshopping. Hmm.
Article 5 refers to any content which might impair the development of children and adolescents assuming the content in question has not been cleared for children or adolescents under the German Protection of Young Persons Act. Now there’s a thought. The article also enshrines a broadcasting watershed. Now there’s another thought.
Article 4 contains the following words
Without prejudice to any liability under the German Criminal Code, content is illegal if it…
3. incites..hatred against parts of the population or against a national, racial, religious or ethnic group, encourages violent or arbitrary action against such a group or violates the human dignity of a person or group by insulting, maliciously degrading or defaming parts of the population..
5. presents cruel or otherwise inhuman acts of violence against a person in a manner devised to glorify or trivialise such acts..or..in a manner which violates human dignity..
That is broad language yet there is absolutely no doubt about the intent.
The UK could learn something
Here in the UK whenever questions have been raised about problematic web content lots of people have broken out in a cold sweat. Ugly phrases like politically motivated censorship start getting splashed around. We are told it would be too difficult to define the issues closely enough. We would end up with hopelessly vague terms and so on. All in all we are told to leave well alone and do nothing.
Actually what that means is that internet companies that want to do the right thing are left entirely to their own devices. Things get dealt with informally, on an ad hoc basis. However, by this route a cloak of secrecy envelops what ought to be an openly acknowledged and clear process. Secrecy breeds a suspicion that editorial powers are being exercised in a way that the public would not understand or support or that the law would strike down as an unjustifiable interference with free speech if anyone found out.
Something to think about
I find the German model very attractive. I can see how in the UK it would help everyone and do so on the basis of declared rules which themselves would be justiciable. Moreover the Jugendshutz-KJM partnership creates a single or at any rate a dual point of reference where a comprehensive body of knowledge and expertise could be developed around children and online media. Without having to define every potential eventuality to the Nth degree we could, as with the German Interstate Treaty, define broad objectives then leave it to such a legally constituted independent body to make determinations about them. Complex issues could be weighed in the balance and judgements reached away from immediate pressures but, obviously, as previously stated subject to judicial review if that was necessary.
At the moment in Britain we have bodies like ATVOD, BBFC, IWF, OFCOM, the Gambling Commission (in respect of age verification solutions), ASA and the Video Standards Council (in respect of online and computer games) all swirling around this space. The Office of the Information Commissioner and even parts of the work of the former Office of Fair Trading (for example on the abuse of free apps) are also in the mix.
I am certainly not suggesting that all of these bodies be divested of their current responsibilities in relation to children and for these to be merged into a single new super regulator (OfKid?) but maybe we could start to think about possible rationalizations and improvements to our present arrangements.
Up to now I had always thought OFCOM would be the obvious lead agency for matters of the kind discussed here but they keep sending out messages that they are not interested. If that remains the case maybe the world should be rearranged around them. Manifesto writers please note.
PS Apologies for the prolonged absence of my blog and thanks for the many enquiries I received about it. A family bereavement, moving house and an unusual amount of overseas travel were to blame. Normal service is now being resumed.