Seventeen social-networking Web sites including household names such as Facebook, Bebo, and MySpace have signed a voluntary code of practice designed to stamp out online bullying of children and to inform kids how to protect their personal information, the European Commission said Tuesday.
More than half of all Polish teenagers and a third of teenagers in the U.K. and Belgium say they have been victims of so-called cyberbullying, according to a pan-European study conducted for the Commission last July.
Viviane Reding, the European commissioner for Internet-related issues, is a fan of social-networking Web sites, which today attract more than 40 million regular European visitors. That number is forecast to grow to more than 100 million by 2012, the Commission said.
But the potential threat to users under the age of 18 has to be tackled, Reding said in a presentation in Luxembourg to mark the annual Safer Internet Day, an initiative started by the Commission in 2004.
"Social networking has enormous potential to flourish in Europe, to help boost our economy and make our society more interactive – as long as children and teenagers have the trust and the right tools to remain safe when making new 'friends' and sharing personal details online," she said.
She warned that if the voluntary code signed Tuesday fails to reduce instances of bullying, the Commission may take action to force the Web sites to change the way they interact with children.
"I will closely monitor the implementation of today's agreement, and the Commission will come back to this matter in a year's time," she said.
The social networking sites have agreed to provide an easy-to-use and accessible "report abuse" button on their sites, allowing users to report inappropriate contact from another user with one click.
They will also make sure that the full online profiles and contact lists of Web site users who are registered as being under 18 are set to "private" by default. This will make it harder for people with bad intentions to get in touch with the young person.
Private profiles of users under the age of 18 will not be searchable on the Web sites or through search engines, and sites targeting teenagers will make it harder for kids under 13 to register.
And finally, they agreed to guarantee that privacy options are prominent and accessible at all times, so that users can easily work out if just their friends, or the entire world, is looking at what they post online.
The social networking sites will inform the Commission about their individual safety policies and how they will put these principles in place by April 2009.
The 17 sites are: Arto, Bebo, Dailymotion, Facebook, Giovani.it, Google/YouTube, Hyves, Microsoft Europe, MySpace, Nasza-klaza.pl,Netlog, One.lt, Skyrock, StudiVZ, Sulake/Habbo Hotel, Yahoo!Europe and Zap.lu.
Safer Internet Day was also supported by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a United Nations agency dealing with telecom- and internet-related issues.
"Child online safety must be on the global agenda," said ITU Secretary-General Hamadoun Touré, adding: "We must ensure that everyone is aware of the dangers for children online. And we want to promote and strengthen the many outstanding efforts that are being made around the world to limit these dangers."
Tuesday's agreement among the social networking sites to sign up to the voluntary code is the result of talks with the European Commission, NGOs and researchers that began last April.
Similar initiatives in this area include the Social Networking guide from U.K. Home Office published last April, and agreements between MySpace and, separately, Facebook with 49 state attorneys general in the U.S.