Exciting times for the EU implementation of RENFORCE efforts for the future proof protection of minors online

Coming from the Molengraaff Institute of Private law (REBO), I feel very much connected to RENFORCE and its work. From my early days as a PHD student, my focus has been on how regulation and supervision can deal with disruptive technology in a future proof way. How to support innovation on the one hand and to protect vulnerable consumer interests on the other, has been the leading theme in my work both in academia and for society. Since this is one of the key themes of RENFORCE, I always feel very much at home, but the last six month have been extremely exciting existing in this respect.tumblr_o1ioscgle31tr7a3bo1_500

With and trough RENFORCE we have initiated many very valuable projects.  One of these initiatives is the project on the EU regulation of the protection of minors on all platforms and media against harmful, violent content. What is the optimal regulatory mix to guarantee protection of our beloved children on the one hand, whilst avoiding stifling innovation of the promising converging media on the other? A RENFORCE Conference on the topic as well as a peer reviewed publication formed the basis of my input in the recent update of the Directive on audio-visual media services, input I could give both as a RENFORCE law professor and as an ERGA chair[1]. I was extremely grateful to learn that the academic effort was fully acknowledge by the European Commission in its text for a New Directive for Audio-visual media services. A perfect valorisation of RENFORCEs academic efforts.

For those of you unfamiliar with ERGA, we were established in 2014 to advise the European Commission in the domain of the Audio-visual Media Services Directive. Our members are independent, national AV regulators from across the EU. Recommendations included encouraging self- and co-regulation, and levelling protection across linear and non-linear content. The majority of recommendations were incorporated into the proposal for the revised directive.

The need for better protection of minors is high and rising. Research by for instance the Netherlands Institute for the Classification of Audio-visual Media shows minors can easily access harmful content on common platforms like YouTube and Facebook. This material is deeply disturbing. Warzone executions. Mobs savagely beating people. Addicts shooting up heroine. Kids cartoons dubbed with profanity.

The industry has begun to take steps, but there are too many different initiatives and too little coordination. What is needed is a co-regulatory system that works across platforms and devices, that is easy to use, affordable, and universally applicable, taking into account the cultural differences between Member States.  The proposal for the revised directive gives private actors from the industry the freedom to develop this system. Private actors have two reasons to make this a top priority. First, it is their social responsibility. Their position as creators, distributors or portals, gives them a moral obligation to protect the most vulnerable groups in society.  Second, there is a clear financial incentive. Parents will choose devices and platforms that offer the best protection, meaning the level of protection could in itself become a competitive advantage. This could mean more traffic, advertising income and subscriptions. Not acting, on the other hand, could lead to reputational and financial damage when parents complain and take their business elsewhere.

Combining RENFORCEs academic insights on future proof regulatory strategies in the field of co-regulation, combined with knowledge of industry interests and consumer needs can actually help finding future proof solutions to the benefit of us all. Although the European Commission has indeed completely embraced our views in its proposal for a new Audio-visual Media Services Directive, it is finally upon the Member States and the European Parliament to actually establish the new system and upon industry and regulators to make it work. The next half year will therefore be at least as exciting as the last one.

[1] The European Regulators Group for Audiovisual Media Services (ERGA)