CoE works on new instrument on children empowerment on the net

By EDRi · March 15, 2006

The Council of Europe Group of Specialists on Human Rights in the
Information Society (CoE MC-S-IS) held its 4th meeting on 9-10 March in
Strasbourg, with EDRI participating in its capacity of non governmental
observer. Among the many issues on the agenda were:

– the analysis of answers to the questionnaire sent by the group to
CoE member States on their implementation of the CoE Declaration of freedom
of communication on the Internet (only 7 out of 46 answers received so far);
-the review of the CoE Recommendation on media coverage of election
campaigns taking into account new medias, the mapping of human rights issues
and guidelines with regards to roles and responsibilities of different
– the development of strategies promoting digital inclusion and
Internet literacy;
– the program of the next CoE Pan-European Forum on Human Rights in
the Information Society to be held in Erevan in early October 2006.

EDRI-gram is making public the questionnaire on freedom of communication,
and will report on these issues as they develop in the future.

An important part of this meeting was dedicated to the discussion of a
preliminary draft CoE instrument on “harmful” content. This work is a core
aspect of the group mandate, since MC-S-IS terms of reference state, inter
alia, that it should “elaborate the meaning of “harmful content”, as
referred to in Council of Europe instruments, in order to promote coherence
in the protection of minors in all media in the Information Society”. It
has been made clear for almost 10 years in other arenas, and specially
within the EU and the OSCE, that human rights standards on freedom of
expression should apply on-line in the same way as they do off-line. A clear
difference should be made between illegal content and content which, though
legal, may be considered as harmful to specific categories of persons, like
children and young people.

It is also generally accepted that “harmful” content is hard to define at a
global level as the “risk of harm” perception is highly depending on
culture, education and other aspects that vary among and within societies.
Even as regards illegal content, the European Court of Human Rights
confirmed this essential
diversity in two different cases. First in the Müller v. Switzerland case
(no. 41202/98, §35, 5 November 2002) and reconfirmed in one of its first
Internet case law (Perrin v. the United Kingdom, Decision on admissibility,
no. 5446/03, 18 October 2005). “Today, as at the time of the Handyside
judgment …, it is not possible to find in the legal and social orders of
the Contracting States a uniform European conception of morals. The view
taken of the requirements of morals varies from time to time and from place
to place, especially in our era, characterised as it is by a far-reaching
evolution of opinions on the subject.”

Despite this well-established background, a study commissioned by the
MC-S-IS Secretariat and presented during the 2005 CoE Pan-European Forum on
Human Rights in the Information Society still tries to mix the illegal and
harmful content issues. The authors of this research report, Rachel
O’Connell and Jo Bryce, from the University of Central Lancashire (UK),
attempt to define a “taxonomy-based risk identification methodology”,
ranging activities, behaviours and contents from “normal” to “proscribed”,
considering in between those that represent a “risk of harm”. The danger of
such categorization resides not only in the caricatural globality of moral
judgements (by qualifying what is “normal” and what is “deviant”), but also
in this attempt to identify a continuum between “harmful” and “illegal”
categories. This, inevitably, leads the authors to make highly controversial
recommendations such as “it is hoped that the ‘risk of harm’ construct
will serve as a key function of the developing horizontal and harmonised
policies and mechanisms for the regulation of European cross-media content
and services.”

Fortunately, after strong criticisms during the 2005 CoE
Pan-European Forum and the 3rd and 4th MC-S-IS group meetings, notably from
EDRI, ENPA (The European Newspaper Publishers Association) and many CoE
member States participant in the group of specialists, it is expected that
the CoE won’t endorse such an approach. It has been decided that the draft
CoE instrument prepared by the group will mainly focus on “Responsible use,
education, well-being and empowerment of children and young people using the
Internet and related communication services and technologies”, as its
provisional title now reads, rather than on attempting to define “harmful
content”. The 4th working group meeting has again helped to remove the main
dangers of the draft text, making it more consistent with the general CoE
background of respect for and upholding of human rights, as well as with its
specific efforts on media education and media literacy (a 2nd edition of the
CoE ‘Internet Literacy Handbook’ has just been released).

Next steps are to be finalise, through on-line discussions, the drafting of
the text so that the draft instrument may hopefully be discussed at the
next meeting of the CDMC (Steering Committee on Medias and Communications,
under the CoE Human Rights DG, scheduled by end of May 2006) and then
submitted to the CoE Committee of Ministers, which should decide on its
approval. This instrument may become either a CoE Declaration or a CoE
Recommendation, its status being still under discussion.

CoE MC-S-IS public website

EDRI-gram : EDRI Granted Observer Status In CoE HR Group (29.06.05)

EDRI-gram : Human Rights In The Information Society On CoE Agenda (21.09.05)

CoE MC-S-IS questionnaire to member States on their implementation of the
Declaration on Freedom of Communication (English and French, made public by
EDRI on 15.03.06)

CoE Internet Literacy Handbook, 2nd edition (English and French versions)

(Contribution by Meryem Marzouki, EDRI-member IRIS)