Children's Rights Online: An Interview with UNICEF's Patrick Geary

Children around the world are increasingly interacting with technology products and services. While these interactions can provide many benefits – including access to education tools, means of connecting with friends, outlets of creative expression – there has been a growing awareness of the need to understand and reduce potential harms children may face online, including exploitation and access to harmful online content, among others. While these risks are important, there has been little discussion of protecting children’s other rights online, namely the right to privacy and free expression. 

Seeking to fill that void, UNICEF recently launched an Industry Toolkit on Children's Online Privacy and Freedom of Expression. Developed with leading companies, NGOs, academics and industry experts, the Toolkit aims to guide businesses towards better respect for children's rights online. It identifies five General Principles to shape corporate policies and practices, and provides a Checklist for Companies to practically assess how children's privacy and expression rights are considered across their websites, platforms, products, services and applications.

Article One sat down with Patrick Geary from the UNICEF Child Rights and Business Unit to discuss children's right to privacy and free expression online and a new Toolkit for companies to respect these rights through their products and services.

 

UNICEF's Industry Toolkit focuses specifically on children's rights online, how are those rights the same or different to children's rights offline?

While the Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted in a largely non-digital world, children’s rights apply online just as they apply offline. The difference comes in how children exercise their rights, and it’s clear that the Internet has vastly changed how children learn, connect, play and express themselves.

What are the primary risks facing children when it comes to their right to privacy online?

This is the first generation of children who are being tracked before they are even born. Children’s data trails are getting deeper and wider by the second, and vast quantities of information about them will have been collected and processed by the time they turn 18. While we don’t yet know what the effects of this will be, this information could be used to make decisions about whether children have access to education, insurance, finance and employment when they become adults.

These risks are increasingly relevant for non-tech companies. Which sectors do you think stand to benefit the most from implementing the guidance in the Toolkit?

Our hope is that every company with an impact on children’s rights online will benefit from using the Toolkit! One of the most challenging areas right now is the Internet of Things, as home devices and connected toys now collect extensive personal information from children. There have already been news stories about covert recording and security breaches, so it's incredibly important that these products are designed with children’s privacy in mind from the outset.

Many people reading this may wonder whether it is the child's parents who are responsible for protecting their children's rights online, rather than a company. How do you respond to that?

Parents and caregivers play an important role in helping children to exercise their rights, especially for younger children who are still developing a sense of autonomy and maturity. Parents and caregivers can serve as a source of guidance and support for children as they become familiar with the digital environment, but this is by no means an easy task.

In many countries around the world, parents have little experience using technology and may be relying on their children to understand how the Internet works. Even for parents with high levels of digital literacy, it is virtually impossible to understand all the ways in which their children’s information is being shared and processed, and parents often do not have a meaningful option to seek extra protection for their children’s privacy when using a product or service that benefits their development.  Children’s data is also collected outside the home in places like schools, which often have agreements to share children’s data with companies that offer hardware or software.

So, while parents can play an active role in helping children to safely explore the digital environment, this is only one piece of the puzzle and cannot make up for the failure to consider children’s rights elsewhere. Every actor must play their part in protecting, respecting and realizing children’s rights.

The Toolkit provides five general principles. What are those Principles and why were they seen as the most important issues for companies to focus on?

We pulled together five, rights-based general principles that should serve as a framework for how everyone considers children’s rights in a digital world—governments, companies, parents, educators and children alike. With the rapid pace of technological advancement, we wanted to make sure that the Toolkit is future-proof - and we know that children’s rights are here to stay. Much of the discussion about human rights in a digital world has been focused on privacy and expression, as these rights are particularly affected online, and it was important for us to ensure that children’s rights are brought into this ongoing dialogue.

The Principles are:

  1. Children have the right to privacy and the protection of their personal data.
  2. Children have the right to freedom of expression and access to information from a diversity of sources.
  3. Children have the right not to be subjected to attacks on their reputation.
  4. Children’s privacy and freedom of expression should be protected and respected in accordance with their evolving capacities.
  5. Children have the right to access remedies for violations and abuses of their rights to privacy and free expression, and attacks on their reputation.

The Principles suggest an interesting balance between content restrictions and filters and a child’s right to free expression. How does UNICEF think about that tension and what guidance does the Toolkit provide?

It’s important that children have a safe space to explore the Internet and develop the skills and confidence they will need to use the Internet. Protective measures like filters and restrictions can to some extent help to create this space, especially for younger children. Yet children face increasing levels of supervision at home and at school, with monitoring software and parental controls sometimes following their every word. This makes it difficult for children to share their views and opinions in an open, honest spirit, and can deny them access to beneficial content like information about reproductive health and sexuality. This is particularly challenging for teenagers, who seek the independence to exercise their rights and are less in need of protection or supervision.

Informed consent is an important topic for the tech sector. What additional challenges does informed consent have when considering child users?

Seeking informed consent can be a powerful means for empowering for children to take control over their data. EU legislation now requires that terms and conditions be accessible for all users above the age of digital consent, which in some countries is set at 13. This means that companies must explain their data privacy policies to 13-year-olds in ways they can understand, which will undoubtedly be challenging given the complex ways in which many businesses operate. Companies can look for creative ways to reach children, through videos and cartoons, and they can also reconsider the ways in which they collect and process children’s data so that they become easier to explain. While parental consent must be sought for children under the age of digital consent, companies also have an opportunity to help younger children start to learn about their privacy online and will in any event need to seek children’s own consent once they reach the age threshold.   

Now that the Toolkit is publicly available, how are you hoping companies use the guidance?

We’ve designed the guidance in way that it can be used to do a stand-alone assessment of a company’s policies and practices or integrated into some of the existing, regular assessments that many companies already undertake. We hope that companies will introduce commitments to respect children’s rights in their policy statements, and that they will use the checklist to identify ways in which they can improve their impacts on children’s privacy and freedom of expression. We will also encourage companies to share how they have used the Toolkit - the challenges they faced, the gaps they have uncovered, the commitments they have made.