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Speech by Maud de Boer-Buquicchio
International Conference on combating
sexual exploitation of children in the Internet
“The protection of girls and boys against sexual violence in the new media”


Berlin, 30 June 2009

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Every parent will remember the first time his or her child went to school alone. We feel a mixture of pride and dread when we see them walking down the street. We want our children to become autonomous and learn to exercise judgment, but we also want them to be safe. We will let them go to school on their own, or to a nearby shop, or to visit a friend, or play in the park, but no responsible parent will let a child wander late at night in the seediest part of town, where crime is rampant and all sorts of predators lurk in badly lit streets.

This is in the real world, but in fact, virtual reality is no different. In a way, the Internet resembles a huge metropolis, with neighbourhoods which are perfectly safe as long as normal precautions are taken and other neighbourhoods from which not only children but also adults should stay clear.

The Internet is a wonderful tool which has changed and improved our lives in many different ways. But it also has its dark side.

The misuse of new information technologies for sexual exploitation and abuse of children is one of the darkest ones. We all know that a large number of children are exploited by the “sex industry” each year – virtually and in real life and that there are countless images of sexually abused children posted on the Internet.

These images are of real children, real-life girls and boys, some very young. And there is nothing virtual about their suffering. The images of their abuse are sent around the world to feed the sex trade in children. Initial encounters in the cyberspace, such as chatroom or game sites, can lead to real encounters with lasting damage. Only a few days ago in Strasbourg, a fourteen year old girl excitedly waited in front of her school for a first date with a friend she met in as chatroom. A seventeen year old boy – or so she was led to believe. In reality, the man who turned up was twice that age, and he physically assaulted the girl. Because this happened in public, the man got scared and fled. This particular “grooming” ended without more serious consequences. But often this is not the case.

It is difficult to imagine a more distressing and more destructive form of violation of human rights, especially when children are concerned. It is not because children are small that they are entitled to less protection. On the contrary. It is therefore logical that the Council of Europe as the leading human rights body in Europe, got involved early in efforts to fight this phenomenon and got involved with great focus and with great determination.

At the Council of Europe we have developed a whole range of tools to help fight crime and protect human rights: we produce legally binding treaties, we produce soft-law recommendations and we help to raise awareness through campaigns or training materials.

In the fight against sexual exploitation of children through Internet, we have used all these tools.

First, the treaties: the Council of Europe Convention on cybercrime and the Council of Europe Convention on the protection of children against sexual exploitation and abuse. Broadly speaking, these two Conventions are designed to prevent and combat respectively pedopornographic material circulating on the Internet and the use of the Internet or other modern technologies to get in touch with children for sexual purposes in the real life – the so-called “grooming”.

The Convention on Cybercrime of 2001 not only criminalised pedopornography on the Internet, but it also developed investigative tools adapted to the Internet environment and strengthened international co-operation through the creation of a network operating 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. Over 100 countries around the world have either ratified this Convention, sought accession to it, or adopted national legislation in line with it.

The Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse adopted in 2007, is a comprehensive Convention dealing with the prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse, the protection of children and the prosecution of the perpetrators. The “3Ps” which are by now the trademark of most of the recent Council of Europe conventions.

This new Convention also acknowledges that the private sector has a crucial role to play in preventing sexual exploitation of children. No one can achieve the goal of eliminating sexual exploitation of children when acting alone: law enforcement, public authorities and private industries must work hand-in-hand to eliminate this scourge. The information and communication sector, banking and financial companies as well as the travel and tourism sector must all be our partners.

I would like to take the opportunity to launch a pressing call on all our member States which have not yet done so to ratify and implement these two treaties without delay. Child abusers should not be able to find havens to shield them from the punishment they deserve.

The second part of our work, concerns the adoption of soft-law instruments: recommendations and guidelines which help member States in devising their policies in a particular field.

In this respect, the Council of Europe produced Guidelines for the co-operation between law enforcement and Internet service providers against cybercrime and human rights guidelines for Internet service providers.

The traceability of children’s activities via the Internet creates risks, as it may facilitate grooming or other illegal or harmful activities, such as discrimination, bullying, stalking and other forms of harassment. This is why the Committee of Ministers, in 2008, adopted a Declaration to explore the possibilities of removing or deleting content created by children on the Internet which challenges their dignity, security and privacy or otherwise renders them vulnerable now or at a later stage in their lives, including its traces such as logs, records and processing, within a reasonably short period of time.

Moreover, during the same year and to satisfy the legitimate desire and duty of member states to protect children and young people from content carrying a risk of harm, the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers adopted a Recommendation on measures to promote the respect for freedom of expression and information with regard to Internet filters. This text contains specific guidelines for the proportionate use of filters as a means of encouraging access to, and confident use of, the Internet by children.

Filters are a complement to other strategies on how to tackle harmful content, such as the development and provision of information literacy.

And this leads me to the third way in which the Council of Europe works to help children enjoy the internet to the fullest, while avoiding its dangers.

Empowering children, teachers and parents in the new media environment is essential. The Council of Europe has developed a series of tools in this respect, such as the Internet literacy handbook and the on-line game “Through the Wild Web Woods”.

The Internet Literacy Handbook, intended for parents, teachers and young people, covers a number of issues relating to the use of the internet: from information search to the setting up of blogs.

“Through the Wild Web Wood” is an online game for teaching children basic Internet safety in a fun and friendly fairy tale environment. Mainly for children between 7 and 10 years of age, the game currently exists in over 20 languages and has hit 2,3 million users. A great success!

In short, children should be able to exercise in safety their rights and reap the benefits of the new information and communication environments. They should be responsible, informed and critical participants - users, creators and distributors of content – on the Internet and in the information society more generally. Children, in the same way as adults, are entitled to enjoy the fundamental right to freedom of expression and information, without interference and regardless of frontiers.

This is our objective and this is what we have been working for. But let’s now look at the future.

In 2010, the Council of Europe will launch a campaign to eliminate sexual violence against children with particular emphasis on the issue of sexual violence and Internet. We hope that Germany will actively support this campaign.

We will also develop guidelines for helping States setting up national integrated strategies for the prevention of violence against children. The kind of strategy we have in mind should facilitate immediate and effective action to new and emerging challenges by a collective response of all those responsible to deal with children: social and health services, law enforcement, educational sectors, governments, parliaments, and local authorities, they all have to work together for preventing and eradicating violence against children – and they must do so with them.

One of our future priorities will also be the creation of safe and secure environments for children on the Internet, and the development of a Pan-European trustmark and labelling system.

Only a few days ago, the German Parliament adopted a law to block access to child pornography sites as a preventive measure. This constitutes a robust response to the challenges posed by pedopornography on the Internet. Internet users hoping to download child porn will instead be met with a large red "stop" sign, warning of the impact of paedophilia on the victims. We follow this development and the discussions about it with great interest as lessons may be drawn for other European countries.

Indeed, as we all know the Internet is international by nature, and there is therefore an obvious need to discuss how all Council of Europe member States can adopt a common approach to this issue, through public-private partnership and through a proper balance between freedom of expression and information on the one hand, and the protection of children on the other.

For me one thing is sure: freedom of expression is not a licence to hurt or destroy the integrity of children. Sexual violence against girls and boys is not a new phenomenon; it has always existed. It does not originate with new media or with the Internet. However, new means of abuse, or new means instrumental to perpetrating abuse, need new responses.

The Council of Europe was created 60 years ago to defend freedom and we consider the Internet to be a wonderful opportunity to further expand and enjoy this freedom. But this is in no way incompatible with our efforts to minimise the risks and protect the safety and dignity of everyone, especially children.

Thank you very much.