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Implementation of child protection laws in cyberspace

(PTOJ) - The legal corridor for child protection in cyberspace in Vietnam has been initially formed. However, enforcement of child protection laws in cyberspace still has shortcomings and limitations; the coordination among state management agencies in preventing and handling violations is currently inadequate. This article focuses on clarifying the current requirements for implementing Vietnam’s current child protection laws in cyberspace and proposing solutions to improve the efficiency of the implementation.

Children benefit from participating in an online environment but face many risks at the same time. Photo:laodong.vn

1. Regulations of child protection in cyberspace

The “2016 Children’s Law” stipulates that a child is a person under 16 years old. Thus, all children under 16 years old, regardless of whether they are Vietnamese citizens or foreigners living in Vietnam, are protected by the law. Child protection is the application of appropriate measures to ensure a safe and healthy life for children and to prevent and, investigate acts of child abuse(1).

The concept of “cyberspace” is specified in the “2018 Cyber Security Law” as the interconnecting network of information technology infrastructure, including telecommunications networks, internets, computer networks, information systems, information processing and control systems, and databases; where people perform social communications that are not limited by space and time(2).

As a part of the “Children’s Law”, the law on “Child Protection in Cyberspace” is a consolidation of legal regulations promoted by the State to regulate social interaction in cyberspace to ensure a safe internet for children, with the overall goal to control, prevent, and investigate acts of child abuse.

Children are vulnerable subjects with limited understanding of social issues, especially those involving gender. According to the United Nations’ statistics, 1/3 of global internet users are children. Specifically, in developed countries children make up 1/5 of internet users while in developing and undeveloped countries 1/3 to 1/2 of all users are children(3).

Vietnam is among the countries with the largest number of internet users in the world with 64 million users, accounting for 66% of the population. Of these, 1/3 of users are aged 15 to 24(4). Although there are no official statistics, the proportion of children using cyberspace reflects the fact that young people are extremely attracted to technology. Meanwhile, criminals using cyberspace to commit crimes are increasingly sophisticated. They do not need to show their faces nor spend much effort but can still achieve their goals. The heavy use of cyberspace but lack of skills and awareness of this duality, make children subject to threats, abuse, exploitation, and fraud.

In 2019, in conjunction with the “2018 Cybersecurity Law,” Vietnam signed the joint “Declaration on the Protection of Children from All Forms of Online Exploitation and Abuse in ASEAN,” creating a legal corridor for child protection in cyberspace. The contents of legal regulations on child protection in cyberspace include:

First, children have the right to be protected, the right to access information, to participate in social activities, to entertainment, to protection of  personal secrets, private life, and other indisputable rights while using cyberspace.

Second, the subjects that are responsible for child protection in cyberspace include:

i) Information system owners, telecommunications network service providers, internet service providers, and value-added services that have the responsibility to control content on said information systems, that these services be harmless for children, and have the responsibility to prevent sharing and deletion of information with harmful content for children and their rights; must promptly notify and coordinate with the specialized force authorities in network security protection under the authority of the Ministry of Public Security; ii) Agencies, organizations and individuals participating in cyber activities are responsible for cooperating with authorized agencies in ensuring children’s rights in cyberspace, preventing information containing harmful content in accordance with the “Law on Cyber Security” and the law on children; iii) Agencies, organizations, parents, teachers, caregivers, and other individuals involved are also responsible for ensuring children’s rights and protecting children when they are participating in internet activities in accordance with regulations defined in children’s laws; iv) Authorized agencies in charge of cybersecurity protection are responsible for enforcing measures to prevent, detect, control, and strictly handle cyber activities that harm and abuse children and children’s rights(5).

Implementing the law on child protection in cyberspace in Vietnam is a combination of proactive actions to exercise the law through specific activities that protect children in cyberspace.

2. The implementation of children’s laws in cyberspace

a. Compliance with child protection laws in cyberspace.

The 2015 Cyber Information Security Law, the 2016 Children’s Law, and the 2016 Law on Access to Information all have defined legal regulations on child protection. Recently, due to the complex nature of cyberspace, the 2018 Cybersecurity Law has set aside a separate provision regulating the protection of children and children’s rights in cyberspace. Thus, the legal framework for protecting children in cyberspace has gradually been completed.

However, cases of child sexual abuse in cyberspace are on the rise with complicated developments. In only the first 5 months of 2018, the entire country discovered 682 cases of abuse involving 735 children, of which 572 were sexually abuse cases and 562 children were abused(6). Cyberspace child sexual abuse crimes are related to acts such as: using the internet to get acquainted, seduce, and/or bribe children to take pictures, film pornography, and/or meet up for the purpose of sexual abuse and murdering children. These crimes also include distribution of pornographic movies and photographs through the internet. These dangerous crimes are carefully covered up making them difficult to detect.

Online crimes related to sexual abuse are a serious violation of the provisions of Article 147 of the Criminal Code on recruiting a person under 16 for pornographic purposes; of the prosecution of people who persuade, entice, or otherwise force a person under 16 to participate in a pornographic performance or watch a pornographic performance in any shape or form; and a de facto violation of Article 326 of the Criminal Code regarding distribution of pornographic materials, including the act of making, duplicating, publishing, transporting, dealing in, or storing books, magazines, pictures, films, music, or other items that contain pornographic content for the purpose of distribution.

Statistics show that more than 720,000 pictures of child abuse are posted online daily, with most including violence and sexual abuse. In the first 4 months of 2020, the National Child Protection Hotline 111 (Department of Children, Ministry of Labor - Invalids and Social Affairs) received 125,314 calls, asking for advice, support, and intervention. A large percentage of these cases were initiated in cyberspace. Though there is no specific data on the number of children being abused through the internet, the large number of calls demonstrates there is inadequate attention from families and schools toward protecting children(7).

b. The implementation of child protection laws in cyberspace.

Currently, agencies, organizations, parents, teachers, caregivers, and related individuals have actively propagated and educated children’s rights and protection of children when they are participating in cyberspace activities according to the law. This education includes actively instructing students to know how to avoid risks and dangers they may encounter when participating in cyber activities.

However, the protection of children in cyberspace by qualified agencies is sometimes a formality and has not yet met the requirements of the law. Content, form, and methods of dissemination, legal education, knowledge, and skills on child protection in cyberspace are not vivid, lack specific illustrations, are slow to innovate, and have not yet grasped the reality of the situation that people and children encounter. Educational activities on the law have been irregular, and mainly happen in conjunction with information events or are integrated through forums, conferences, and training, but they have not focused on expanding timely communication to residential areas and households. Communication through electronic newspapers and social networking sites has not been given adequate attention.

Communication skills on child abuse cases are sometimes inaccurate due to lack of careful guidance, inspection and editing before reporting. This has caused confusion and frustration in public perception. Resources for implementing procedures to ensure a child’s right to entertainment are limited; therefore, children still consider interactive activities in cyberspace to be a primary playground.

The rapid development of information technology along with complex developments in high-tech crimes make children increasingly at risk of abuse. Meanwhile, the construction and improvement of a safe internet experience for children has not been properly implemented. Furthermore, the development of child protection protocols, including prevention, intervention, and support services has not been given due attention; the scientific, technological, and information gathering skills of the investigating officers for this type of crime is low. The procedures for collection, evaluation, and use of electronic evidence in cases of child abuse on the internet are confusing and there are currently no official statistic gathering and reporting guidelines on child abuse crimes in cyberspace(8).

c. The utilization of child protection laws in cyberspace

Information system owners, service providers of telecommunication networks, internet networks, and cyberspace value-added services must control, and screen content provided by private enterprise in order to control negative effects on children, children’s rights, and child abuse. At the same time, a program is needed to continuously update State management agencies on their responsibility for controlling and preventing harmful content directed at children.

However, the coordination of information sharing, reporting on results of activities, and the securing of children’s rights according to the assigned responsibilities of ministries and sectors is still slow and inadequate, leading to inaccurate reporting. The mechanism of information and reporting from the local levels to the central level to reflect issues related to children’s rights is currently not transparent and timely. There are still many problems and cases related to children that are not fully understood and consequently are underreported by the responsible agencies.

Training to improve the capacity of personnel working on children issues still remains inadequate due to limited local resources. There is no organized support to train official personnel at all levels according to the current financial mechanism. Training currently must use the employers’ budget.

The current network of social assistance institutions providing services to help victims of sexual abuse, domestic violence, and trafficking is poor in quality and low in quantity. Operational funding sources are limited, and inadequate for care and support of the subjects. Many employees do not have specialized social work training which limits their knowledge and skill on child protection in cyberspace and in assisting victims of abuse(9).

d. The application of child protection laws in cyberspace

The application of the law on child protection in cyberspace is carried out by the agencies specializing in cybersecurity protection. Over the past three years, the police have detected and processed 156 cases of child abuse in cyberspace(10). In fact, the actual number has yet to be discovered and suggests it is much larger.

According to statistics, in the 18 months from January 1, 2015 to June 30, 2016, there were 8,442 cases of child abuse reported and processed nationwide, with 8,709 total abused children. Of these, there were 6,432 children who were sexually abused, 857 children subjected to violent abuse, 106 children trafficked, kidnapped, or appropriated, with an additional 1,314 children abused in other ways. Among these cases of abuse, the most common, with the most serious consequences, and causing the most pressing public opinion is sexual abuse, accounting for 75.4% of the total number of child abuse cases(11). Child abuse cases continues to increase and be conducted in more sophisticated forms.

In some localities, the processing of information and denunciation of child abuse has not been conducted in a timely manner. Officers lack professional skills and knowledge, so they have not met the requirements for supporting the victims and intervening for abused children. In some localities, support activities consist mainly to visit, encourage, give gifts and money, while not fully complying with the provisions of the law on child protection.

The officials in charge of child protection at the commune level are just part-time and frequently change, causing low effectiveness and lack of expertise. The majority of ministries have not yet conducted inspection on the implementation of the law on child protection in cyberspace. By 2018, the decree replacing the Government’s “Decree No. 144/2013/ND-CP” dated October 29, 2013, providing sanctioning of administrative violations of child protection and care, has not yet been issued, leaving a vacuum for handling a number of acts violating children’s rights, including acts of child abuse that are not yet criminally defined.

It is easy to destroy electronic evidence. The capacity to process digital information by officials and investigators is limited, making it difficult to collect electronic data in a timely manner. Although the “2015 Law on Criminal Procedure” has specified the processing time for each case, in fact, the assessment results are still slow in coming, lengthening the time to issue a decision to prosecute the case. Meanwhile, collecting electronic data for assessment and use as evidence is still new under the “2015 Criminal Procedure Code,” making it difficult and confusing for implementation(12).

3. Proposed solutions to ensure the implementation of child protection laws in cyberspace

To ensure the implementation of child protection laws in cyberspace, it is necessary to implement the following solutions drastically and synchronously:

First, the country must fully grasp the spirit of child protection stipulated in the “2013 Constitution” and formalized in the legal system as defined for children. The State protects children’s rights. Children are protected, cared for, and educated by the State, family, and society. Children have the right to be included in defining children’s affairs. Child protection strictly forbid acts of abuse, mistreatment, labor exploitation, and other violations of children’s rights(13). A concerted effort must be made to amend, supplement, and perfect the law on child protection in cyberspace and child protection policy, with a strict sanction on all kinds of crimes committed against children in cyberspace. A strong policy should strengthen legal control, promote technological and practical solutions such as warning, preventing, and removing inappropriate and harmful entrapment strategies against children in cyberspace. A comprehensive policy should enhance coordination among state management agencies in ensuring children’s rights.

Second, children need to be equipped with knowledge and skills to safely participate in internet activities. This requires schools, families, and society to coordinate in guiding, educating, and training children with the defensive skills needed to use the internet. At the same time, society must educate them to proactively protect themselves. Any policy to deploy and integrate educational programs on the implementation of the law on cybersecurity should extend into elementary school levels and higher.

Third, Communicate and improve the efficiency of agencies and organizations to help children, by taking advantage of digital technology to promptly communicate and grasp children’s problems. Child support groups can be established online together with the setting up of an agency to encourage online service providers to participate in child protection.

Fourth, renew the education and communication effort, prioritizing the time and duration of public broadcasting programs on policies and laws on child protection with diversified content and forms that are appropriate to target groups. Enforcement of the law should include strict punishment for agencies, organizations, individuals, parents, and caregivers that violate the law on children, specifically directed at acts of child abuse, cover-up, delay, and deliberately lengthening cases of child rights violations. Also included should be improved inspection, examination, and continuing amendment of the proper implementation of regulations on child protection in cyberspace.

Fifth, the Ministry of Public Security must regularly take measures to prevent and combat acts of violence, sexual abuse, and trafficking of children. Furthermore, local police can be assigned to strengthen review, provide detection and prevention, and promptly handle acts of violence, sexual abuse, and all other forms of child abuse. Minors should be educated as to what constitutes violation of the law. Proactive education on the consequences of drug use should be directed toward teenagers and students, including strict handling of cases of seducing or enticing minors to use drugs illegally.

Sixth, the Ministry of Information and Communication needs to quickly create projects to protect and support children to interact in a healthy and creative computer network. Likewise it can continue to develop tools to connect people and children with agencies responsible for child protection. It can form a social network on child protection in cyberspace. And finally there should be a strict handling of public relation agencies, organizations, and individuals operating in the cyber-network that violate the law on protection of children’s images, private life information, and personal secrets(14).

__________________

Endnotes:

(1) 2016 Children Law, Hanoi, 2016.

(2), (5) 2018 Cybersecurity Law, Hanoi, 2018.

(3) Sonia Livingstone, John Carr and Jasmina Byrne: Global commission on internet governance, Paper series No. 22, 2015, p.6.

(4), (10) https://baoquocte.vn/khan-thiet-bao-ve-tre-em-tren-moi-truong-mang-117055.html.

(6) http://kinhtedothi.vn/5-thang-dau-nam-2018-co-735-tre-em-bi-xam-hai-317976.html.

(7) http://hanoimoi.com.vn/tin-tuc/Xa-hoi/969555/tre-em-bi-xam-hai-tren-moi-truong-mang-thuc-trang-dang-bao-dong.

(8), (9), (12) Government: Report No. 217/BC-CP dated May 14, 2020 on the implementation of policies and laws on prevention and control of child abuse.

(11) https://baotintuc.vn/xa-hoi/phat-dong-thang-hanh-dong-vi-tre-em-2020-20200601110158817.htm.

(13) 2013 Constitution, Hanoi, 2013.

(14) Prime Minister: Directive No. 23/CT-TTg dated May 26, 2020 on strengthening measures to ensure the realization of children’s rights and protection of children.

BUI THI LONG, MA

Ho Chi Minh National Academy of Politics

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