Chatroom Danger: Britain breaks UN pledge to protect kids online

Britain is ignoring its pledge to protect children on the Net. WARNING: this article contains strong and sexually explicit language

Britain is in breach of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the child by failing to provide proper protection to children online, according to legal experts.

The UN Convention declares children should have access to all forms of mass media including the Internet, but demands that governments provide appropriate protection to all children accessing this material.

The article states that whilst children should have access to a wide variety of media sources, member countries have the responsibility to "encourage the development of appropriate guidelines for the protection of the child from information and material injurious to his or her well-being".

"The state has a duty to provide for the rights of the child," said Andy Bilson, director of the Centre for Europe's Children at Glasgow University. "If the state isn't doing enough to protect children online, this is a potential breach of the treaty, as they are failing to properly implement their pledge to protect children."

Every member country of the UN except Ethiopia and the United States (prevented by preserving the death penalty in certain states) has implemented their pledge to the convention within local law. Under the rules of the treaty, the UN committee reviews a country's commitment to meeting the convention's requirements once every five years.

The committee is unable to take any legal action against a country failing to address its responsibilities properly, but can pressurise them into ratifying their pledge to the convention. Likewise, "there is no question of a citizen being able to take action... the UN convention is a long way out of an individual citizen's control", said Robin Bynoe, partner at city law firm Charles Russell.

The growing need for global cooperation in protecting children online was highlighted in the May 2000 optional protocol to the UN convention on the Rights of the Child. The declaration expressed its concern "about the growing availability of child pornography on the Internet and other evolving technologies".

Cyber-rights advocates are concerned that recent high-profile Internet paedophile cases, such as the Wonderland sentencing last month, will place an undue amount of pressure on governments to address the need for online child protection. "I don't want the government and policy makers to have a kneejerk reaction to recent operations," argued Yaman Akdeniz, director of UK-based Cyber-Rights and Cyber-Liberties. "It's better to have a coordinated approach at a national level," he added.

The significance of protecting children on the Internet was dealt with in 1999 at the International Conference on Combatting Child Pornography in Geneva. With 20 million children having Internet access, vice chancellor foreign minister Wolfgang Schussel said in his opening speech: "Child pornography in chatrooms and news groups must not be tolerated in any shape or form."

In demanding the global prohibition of every form of child pornography, including material on the Internet, he stated that "the production, propagation and possession of material containing child pornography must be banned throughout the world and laws introduced to make these actions criminal offences".

What are the risks of paedophiles approaching my children through Yahoo! Messenger chatrooms? Find out the details of ZDNet News' investigation in the Chatroom Danger Special Report

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