The Internet and other network technologies have offered unprecedented access to information and communication to many people, including children. Over the past decade, debates have emerged in many countries about the extent to which ensuring child protection and child safety online can be balanced with maintaining freedom of speech. Advocates of online child protection and freedom of expression both share a deep-seated belief in the vital importance of protecting basic human rights which are grounded in fundamental values of human autonomy and dignity.

However, a shared respect for these core human freedoms is often clouded by perceived (and real) opposition in the practice of law, policy and regulation. This has restricted the policy options available for dealing with both child safety and free speech online, and has often resulted in these interests being portrayed as diametrically opposed.

The Oxford Internet Institute invited advocates on both sides of this debate to meet in October 2009, in order to open channels of communication, explore different perspectives on the fundamental rights of protection and freedom, and map areas of agreement and difference. A report of the discussions, including participant position papers, is now available.

Dr Alison Powell, the Forum Convener, and OII Research Fellow said: “Allowing moral panics to define the debate is not helpful in advancing the aims of either child protection or free speech advocates. Reframing the debate in terms of risks can create common ground.”

She continued: “Our forum was the first opportunity for many advocates to meet in person, and a unique intervention in a contentious debate. Participants discussed how, by working together, both sides could advance their agendas and defend the rights of children while preventing child protection from being used as a strategic pretext for censorship or the limitation of free expression rights. The success of the forum shows that there is significant scope for continuing these conversations.”

Issues discussed at the forum included content blocking and filtering, government legislation and law enforcement, and parental involvement and education. There was also discussion of location-based services, data protection and privacy, liability of Internet Service Providers, age verification online, lawful interception legislation, appropriate classification of written content and pseudo-images of sexual abuse, and encryption. These issues are addressed in the position papers that accompany the report.

It was agreed by the participants that good policy should be informed by good research and data, and there was united support in calling on governments, as well as public and commercial actors, to support further research efforts. Participants also called for precision and transparency in policy responses concerning these issues.

The forum was funded by the Oak Foundation, an international philanthropy funding projects in conservation, human rights, child abuse, housing, learning disabilities, and other social justice issues. It took place at the Oxford Internet Institute (OII), University of Oxford, on 2 October 2009.

The Report

Powell, A., Hills, M. and Nash, V. (2010) Child Protection and Freedom of Expression Online [PDF, 1MB]. Oxford Internet Institute Discussion Forum Paper No. 17.