“The dangers facing our children in the cyber space are multiple, and it included child abuse, child pornography, hate and suicidal sites and many more which many are not aware”. This was one of the quotes by the Minister for Communications in his statement at the launch of “Girls in ICT Project” in 2014. Locating children’s vulnerability to online related sexual abuse and exploitation within a wider social and cultural context can provide a better understanding of the nature of concerns and how they are framed. Clearly, the circumstances in which children begin to engage in the online environment vary hugely across and within different regions or economic status: there is no single global experience.
23rd July marked a memorable day in the lives of children, young people and their families. Some of us were fortunate to be participants in the Validation Workshop on the National Cyber Security Policy and Strategy convened under the auspices of the Ministry of Communications at the Accra International Conference Center. The actual policy document has been in draft since 2011 but to our dismay Child Online Protection is conspicuously missing, this policy like others could have gone through without due deliberation on child online protection. Knowing that it was a multi stakeholder forum, J Initiative supported by the Criminal Justice Advisor from the British High Commission shed some light on the implications of leaving Child Online Protection (COP) out of this all important policy. A case in point is the Child and Family Welfare Policy for Ghana launched by the Department of Children under the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection.
Indeed, the Workshop provided the opportunity to make the case that COP is intrinsically linked to national security. Children are our greatest natural resource and the internet generation will find that their competitors in the global market place will be their peers in the UK, US and China- not just neighboring West African countries. Our national security- whether it is economic or in relation to the protection of our critical national infrastructure-depends on how well we empower our youth to face the challenges and seize the opportunities presented by the Internet.
All stakeholders agreed that incorporating digital safety into the policy was essential to protect children and young people
IMPORTANCE AND IMPACT
Children and young people today inhabit a world that incorporates a virtual reality unknown to previous generations. They have grown up with the Internet as a central part of their lives. They use computers at school, have Internet enabled mobile phones, and online games consoles, smart TV, tablets and laptops at home. They use them to work, play, communicate and express themselves. It’s important to understand how the Internet and technology affect their lives. The ideas, values, culture, aspirations and expectations of children in the 21st century are increasingly informed not by their parents or community and religious leaders but rather by the broader world around them, the pressures of commerce, advertising, and mass media, including the Internet. This experience of intergenerational divergence is far from now. But the scale and speed at which change is happening with varying degrees of intensity depending on countries’ socio-economic and technological development, is of a different order.
Some children and young people may become involved in other equally serious activities related to inappropriate commercial activity such as the buying and selling of stolen goods. They may be exposed to on-line gambling services and also to commercial and financial scams. The ease of access to on-line gambling, sites selling weapons, hacking sites, and sites providing recipes for making drugs or bombs, should be of great concern to any country. If we work well on these basic things children require now to make their online experiences safe and fun we would have much less to worry about with cybercrime. There is also some evidence to suggest that young people have become involved in the viewing, possession, making and distribution of indecent and/or child abuse/pornographic images. Of course, all children and young people respond differently to what they see on the Internet and how they use it.
The networks on which we now rely for our daily lives transcend organizational and national boundaries. Imagine children and young people who form about 50 % of the population of Ghana not catered for in a policy that will regulate the deployment of this network called Internet. There are some recurring patterns, however, which once identified, can inform both how children’s online behavior- and adults’ reactions to it-relate to day-to-day realities of the offline world.
There are three broad categories of online risks for children and young people:
- Internet Technology related risks (content and contact), including exposure to pornography, cyber grooming and cyberbullying,
- Consumer related risks to children: to online marketing and fraudulent transactions; and
- Privacy and security risks, including the use of social networks without sufficient understanding of potential long-term consequences.
It is important to note the interplay between the risk categories. For instance, the risk of exposure to inappropriate content stemming from online marketing involves two risk categories- commercial and privacy.
THERE IS LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL
It is a step in the right direction for stakeholders to consider including COP in the National Cyber Security Policy and Strategy for Ghana. Whilst a commendable attempt, it should also be about abiding by the protocols and conventions to which Ghana, as a member state of the International Telecommunications Union is a signatory.
The Government of Ghana has prioritized ICT access for schools since 2003, largely by partnering with corporate and non-profit partners, but less has been done in the area of child online protection (COP). The Global Resource & Information Directory (GRID), an encyclopedia of information maintained by the Family Online Safety Institute on worldwide Internet trends for children and youths found close to no information relating to initiatives geared towards the provision of online safety information for Ghanaians; current sites focus on improving access to ICTs and Internet usage. This is the starting point to ensuring that children and young people of Ghana are well protected while they have their experience in the digital world. The Director of Reasearch,Statistics and Infrastructure Management at the e Ministry of Communication during the recent update report at the Africa Regional Conference on COP shared a roadmap and strategies aimed at ensuring that children are protected online;
ROAD MAP TO ENHANCE CHILD ONLINE PROTECTION
1. To protect children online and share responsibility both to make a safer online environment for children by reducing online threats to children.
2.To empower children and parents to evaluate and minimize risks and engage online as well as offline , in a secure, safe and responsible manner.
3. To maximize the protection against online risks faced by children without restricting the opportunities and benefits of the Internet for children as well as for other users.
4. To protect children online without undermining the framework conditions that enable the Internet to operate as a global open platform for communication, innovation, economic growth, and social progress.
CHILD ONLINE PROTECTION STRATEGY
The strategy focuses on 4 cardinal points:
1. Developing a sound research base and monitoring framework involving the establishment of COP stakeholder committee to serve as the leading expert advising Government on formulation and implementation of a notional COP plan.
2. Capacity building and awareness creation
3. Developing Legal measures to review the existing child protection act to include COP
4. Establishing a COP Portal with all Child online education information and forms for making online reports of COP incidences. A call centre is being put in place at the MoC new building and Data Centre. Special COP support numbers will be provided for the public to call for assistance.
Now with all these fantastic draft plans in place, my opinion is that stakeholders should help the children, young people and families of Ghana by thoughtfully and deliberately working to incorporate child online protection into our policies as they affect the people of Ghana. The plan from where I seat is not complete but it is the starting point and it will be worth our efforts as Ghanaians working to protect our children to take a look at the plan, make recommendations or take a bite on what your capacity could allow in line with what has been started. No need to re-invent the wheel in COP matters because online risks faced by children are many and evolving. Addressing them requires a blend of approaches that include legislative, self- and co-regulatory, technical, awareness and educational measures, as well as positive content provision and child safety zones. In practice, each country operates its own policy mix of characteristics and priorities, which reflects its perception of priorities as well as its culture and style of government. Moreover, policy measures that address different risks and initiatives from various stakeholders at different levels co-exist. This creates policy complexity at national level and policy heterogeneity across countries.
For policy to protect children online to operate effectively as the sum of its parts, governments should enhance the coherence of their policy measures and tools in collaboration with all stakeholders. Public-private partnerships, thus, have been a successful way to encourage self- and co-regulation. Policies to protect children online would benefit from efforts to ensure consistency with other important policy objectives, such as the, ICT for Accelerated Development Policy, the Children’s Act focusing on the fundamental rights and maintenance of the framework conditions from bodies like ITU which have enabled the Internet to become a global open platform for innovation, economic growth and social progress. This is to say that it is also important to harmonize all cross -ministerial initiatives on child online/offline protections so we have a well-coordinated effort which will facilitate international cooperation.
In a rapidly changing and growing online environment, leaving safe Internet access to chance is not an option. There is an urgent need for action.
AWO AIDAM AMENYAH
EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, JI
024 230 5656