The CCRC appreciates the government’s intention to adopt legislation regarding on-line safety, including regulations for social media platforms. On-line activity and network media have become an integral part of the lives of young people, with both benefits and risks. The purpose of this submission is to suggest improvements for the package outlined in the discussion documents with regard to children under the age of 18.
The CCRC is a national umbrella group of organizations and individuals across Canada who promote the rights of children and the full implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in Canada and globally. Among our members are groups and academics who have engaged in participatory research with young people regarding their on-line activities and we are part of international networks that focus attention on on-line safety, such as the End Violence Against Children global network which is making on-line safety one of its top global priorities.
Best interests of children, as a high priority, requires specific focus on children in legislation
Social media platforms were not designed for children, but they play a significant role in the lives of children. Children, starting at a young age, are active participants in the on-line world. While this contributes to the development of their full potential, recent research has also shown that they are quickly and frequently targeted with potentially harmful content of various kinds.
States have a responsibility to ensure that the best interests of children are given adequate attention in any public policies relating to the on-line world. They cannot be assumed to be the same as the interests of adults and the general population. While the discussion papers identify some harms for children, they do not include focused attention on children as a separate user group, analysis of the impacts for children, and related measures to respect and fulfill their rights.
Giving high priority and specific attention to the best interests of children is essential to have effective legislation and to fulfill Canada’s duties under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Canada ratified thirty years ago.
Explicit Recognition of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in legislation for on-line activity
The CCRC recommends the inclusion of explicit reference to the Convention on the Rights of the Child as one of the guiding principles in legislation to regulate on-line safety, for the following reasons:
Several aspects of children’s rights are relevant for the subject matter of this legislation
Article 17, which deals explicitly with the role of media in the lives of children, provides useful grounding for the purposes of this legislation, more than other general human rights instruments.
Grounding Canada’s regulations in an international Convention will assist Canada in effective regulation of what are global companies, and align Canada with other countries who are leading in this area of public policy.
Any bodies associated with this legislation, such as the proposed Digital Safety Commission/Commissioner, the Digital Recourse Council, and Advisory Board should also be grounded and required to respect and work to fulfill all the relevant rights of children.
Guidance in General Comment No. 25 for legislation, public policies, and effective practices
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child recently released a General Comment on the Rights of Children in Relation to the Digital Environment, known as General Comment No. 25. It is based on extensive international research, including input from young people, and it provides useful guidance that is relevant for this legislation. Following this guidance will also assist to ground the legislation in sound principles and align with international good practices in the field.
More attention for positive rights of children and prevention, including safety by design
Article 17 of the Convention articulates the right of young people to have access to information from a diversity of sources, especially material that promotes development of the “social, spiritual, and moral well-being and physical and mental health,” as well a right to protection from “information and material injurious to his or her well-being.” Articles 13-15 articulate related rights to freedom of expression, freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, and freedom of association, with limitations by law for public safety, public health, or the rights and freedoms of others.
In order for young people to realize these rights in a digital environment, they need on-line spaces that are designed with their best interests in mind. Research evidence shows that many commercial spaces are designed more to market products, influence, or exploit young people (see the 5 Rights Foundation: https://5rightsfoundation.com/). As well as prohibiting harms, states have a duty to protect the rights of children through measures that require media companies to design and operate services that respect the safety, rights, and vulnerabilities of young people. This might include working with companies to better fulfill the rights of children or standards for the design of services marketed to young people, such as the UK Children’s Code for on-line services. ( See also paragraphs VI.A. 51-54 in General Comment 25)
The CCRC recommends that the government’s framework legislation include reference to these positive rights as well as protection through the prohibition of very specific incidents of harmful content. States have a role in holding other actors and providers of services responsible for respecting the rights of children.
In addition, the legislative framework should include harms over time, as well as discreet, egregious harms, with appropriate response measures. This might include misinformation that encourages engagement in unlawful activities. Consideration of the evolving capacities of children, one of the principles in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, would also result in fine-tuning the legislation; there is a big difference between the capacities of a five year old on-line, for example, and an adolescent.
Agency and Prevention through Education and Child-friendly language
The CCRC appreciates respect for the agency of young users in the complaint-based approach to removal of harmful content. Experience shows that digital education and informing young people about their rights and how to exercise them in the digital world is one of the best forms of prevention.
The proposed provisions in the discussion paper would benefit from review and revision from the perspective of young users with regard to: clarity in the definitions of the five types of harmful content; inclusion of youth-friendly language; inclusion of a youth-friendly complaint process
The CCRC recommends more attention to ensuring that all young people have access to rights-based educational resources and support as they exercise their rights and responsibilities in an on-line world.
Specific focus on youth in mandate of Commissioner and modes of operation
We know from other countries that the role of a Digital Commissioner can be very effective in fostering public awareness and a more rights-respecting culture with regard to on-line activities. The CCRC recommends that the mandate of the proposed Commissioner include a specific mandate to work with young people and that the office operations include trained staff and resources for that purpose.
The legitimacy of requiring reports to law enforcement officials in cases of danger for public safety is recognized. However, the CCRC recommends that the legislation include specific provisions for reporting when the person being reported is known or suspected to be under age 18. The Convention emphasizes using alternative approaches to engagement with police and law enforcement agencies for young people as much as possible. (See paragraph XII.B in General Comment 25)
Child Rights Impact Assessment of Draft Legislation, Mandates for Related Bodies, and Program Plans
The use of child rights impact assessments (CRIAs) before legislation is officially adopted has been shown to result in more effective approaches, prevent gaps, and add credibility. It is one of the general measures for implementation of the Convention that has been repeatedly recommended to Canada for implementation.
Given the importance of this area of public policy for young people and the fact that it is a new area of regulation in Canada, the CCRC recommends that a full CRIA be conducted and made public as part of the process for adoption of the proposed legislation.