By Kuda Hove
In recent years, internet based technology and communication in Zimbabwe has developed at a fast pace. This rapid development, coupled with a steady drop in the purchase cost of internet capable devices such as phones and computers has allowed more children to access the internet, exposing them to new threats and dangers.
In an effort to keep children safe in an online environment, the Postal and Telecommunication Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ) recently compiled Child Online Protection Guidelines.
What are these Online Protection Guidelines?
They are industry led statements outlining the best way to handle the issue of child protection from online threats. They came out of the realisation that the first and best form of defence in protecting children is making them aware of what can happen online and to help children understand that there is always a solution to a problem that they may encounter online.
Empowering children and young people through education and raising awareness on issues around the safe use of the internet is therefore of paramount importance.
To embrace international best practice, POTRAZ adopted these guidelines, and adapted them to the Zimbabwean environment, from those developed by the ITU in collaboration with a team of contributors who are active in the Information Communications Technology (ICT) sector and in child online safety.
They have been prepared within the context of the Child Online Protection (COP) Initiative, a special United Nations-led multi-stakeholder effort to promote awareness on the importance of child safety in the online world and to develop practical tools to assist governments, industry, and educators in this domain.
POTRAZ has invited organisations as well as members of the public interested in children’s rights or in matters of child safety online to submit a comment on the proposed online child protection guidelines by 29 February 2016.
The Guidelines quote statistics from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which states that over 60 per cent of children and young people with internet access talk in chat rooms on a daily basis.
This online presence exposes them to potential threats such as bullying, identity theft, and various forms of online abuse such as exposure to sexual content for grooming purposes, and the production of child sexual materials. Three out of four children online are willing to share personal information about themselves and their family in exchange for goods and services.
The Guidelines place children into three separate age groups – 5-7 years old, 8-12 years old and 13 years old and above. Children that are between the ages of 5 and 7 years decode information in a much simpler way than compared to children in the older age groups. At this stage, a list of safe websites, as well as filtering software can keep children safe.
By the time children are 8 to 12 years old, their sense of curiosity has developed and they start to explore more of the online world and at this stage that potential sexual predators are most likely to start grooming the child. Teenagers over the age of 13 years are more likely to be curious about their sexuality and connecting with the world and exchanging ideas.
Specific Topics Covered in the Guidelines
The Guidelines emphasise the need for internet users to protect their privacy. Protection of privacy becomes important especially when using social media; young people are encouraged to take care against sharing too much private information about themselves and their families. Another way of protecting one’s privacy is the use of confidential passwords, which are not shared with anyone else.
Closely linked to privacy is the concept of a Digital Footprint. The idea that online users leave a digital footprint is because once information is posted online, that piece of information cannot be easily erased from the service provider’s servers.
The Guidelines warn against posting information that might be sensitive in nature or that an online user would not want to be used in an improper way. Very often, once information is posted online other users can access it and do practically anything they want with that information.
Moderate use of the Internet is encouraged, meaning that online activity must be balanced with real life activities and relationships as opposed to just virtual or online relationships.
One interesting concept discussed in the Guidelines is that of a Family Internet Safety Contract. This is a contract between the guardian or parent and the child internet user which sets out the terms and conditions for how the child will use the internet and how violation of the contract will have consequences.
The Guidelines list a number of online rights and responsibilities which include the right to protect your identity, the right to express yourself freely, and be treated with respect while always respecting others, as well as the right to report harmful content found in your internet use. Corresponding responsibilities include a duty to be courteous, not to use abusive language, and not to bully other online users.
The guidelines encourage children to report content that is abusive or illegal. These reports can be made to a trusted adult or to organisations that work to protect and promote child safety such as Childline.
Another issue touched on is online commerce, which is transacted through the use of debit cards or money transfer services operated by mobile operators. Parents and guardians are advised to monitor the online buying patterns of their children. This monitoring also helps child internet users avoid being involved in fraudulent online activities.
Specific Offences Covered in the Guidelines
The Guidelines discuss specific crimes that a young internet user may be exposed to such as bullying and harassment, grooming and the possibility of accessing pirated media such as songs and movies.
Grooming takes place an adult gains the confidence of the intended child victim and then proceeds to expose the child to topics and media of a sexual nature.
Over time, the adult may send the child money or gifts and ultimately, the adult lures the child to travel to a place where the perpetrator will usually exploit the child sexually. With the advent of internet technology, this sexual exploitation can also be done online by asking the child to engage in sexual activities, to record and transmit such activities using a web camera.
Not a complete solution
The Guidelines are a noble attempt to keep Zimbabwe’s young people safe in the online environment; in this regard, they are a good starting point. However, the Guidelines are not able to cover all the possible risks that children face when they are on the internet.
Keeping children safe online will require parents and guardians to be involved in the monitoring of their children as well. Furthermore, children must be taught that safety online is something that can be learned and mastered, by for example practising basic procedures such as logging out of accounts when using a public computer.
*Kuda Hove is a legal and information officer who has a keen focus on Zimbabwean ICT legislation