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UNICEF Gives Companies Guidance on Protecting & Empowering Kids Online

June 21, 2018

As the European Union launches new online privacy protections, and the Pew Research Center releases a report on record levels of American teens’ use of social media, UNICEF and UNICEF USA offer a timely and practical industry toolkit for protecting children's online privacy and freedom of expression.

Launch of Europe’s General Data Protection Regulations and New Pew Report

UNICEF and UNICEF USA’s launch of a new Children’s Online Privacy and Freedom of Expression Toolkit could not have come at a more propitious moment for American companies. With the European Union’s (EU) new General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) having come into force on May 25, 2018, even American companies must comply with these new regulations governing personal data privacy if they interact online with — or sell services or goods to — EU citizens and handle their data digitally.

Yet surprisingly, as Forbes noted as recently as this past March, “The new GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) is less than 90 days away and it’s estimated that only 21% of U.S. businesses have a plan in place. That means 79% of U.S. businesses haven’t figured out how they will report breaches in a timely fashion, provide customers the right to be forgotten, conduct privacy impact assessments (PIAs) and more. If you are one of those businesses that haven’t put a plan in place because you don’t think the new regulations apply to you in the U.S., you’re wrong.”

If you are one of those businesses that haven’t put a plan in place because you don’t think the new GDPR regulations apply to you in the U.S., you’re wrong.

In addition, the Pew Charitable Trust released a report this month on “Teens, Social Media and Technology 2018” that all CIOs, data privacy compliance officers and corporate social responsibility departments should take note of. Pew’s topline finding about American teens: “Most notably, smartphone ownership has become a nearly ubiquitous element of teen life: 95% of teens now report they have a smartphone or access to one. These mobile connections are in turn fueling more-persistent online activities: 45% of teens now say they are online on a near-constant basis.”

UNICEF’s New Privacy and Empowerment Toolkit

Fortunately, UNICEF’s timely and practical Toolkit, focused on children’s online protection and empowerment, is already available for American businesses.  In a series of recent events, involving partners such as Common Sense Media and Article One and including a Toolkit launch at UNICEF USA’s headquarters in New York, a policy roundtable discussion on children and privacy for lawmakers in Washington, D.C., and a panel, entitled “Young, Safe and Free: Respecting Children’s Online Privacy and Freedom of Expression” at the recent RightsCon conference in Toronto, UNICEF and UNICEF USA unveiled their new Toolkit and explained its goals and utility to companies, policy makers, legislators, academics, child rights advocates and others.

Prepared in consultation with industry, civil society, policy makers and researchers, the Toolkit offers a practical follow up to UNICEF’s discussion papers on “Privacy, Protection of Personal Information and Reputation” and “Freedom of Expression, Access to Information and Participation.”  Specifically, the Toolkit contains five rights-based general principles and a practical checklist for companies to review their policies and practices. These general principles — grounded in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child — include the following fundamental commitments for companies:

  • children have the right to privacy and the protection of their personal data;
  • children have the right to freedom of expression and access to information from a diversity of sources;
  • children have the right not to be subjected to attacks on their reputation;
  • children’s privacy and freedom of expression should be protected and respected in accordance with their evolving capacities; and
  • children have the right to access remedies for violations and abuses of their rights to privacy and free expression, and attacks on their reputation.

The general principles apply broadly and outline how policymakers, companies, educators, parents and children can respect and protect children’s online privacy rights while also enabling their rights to online freedom of expression.  

Our accompanying Toolkit checklist offers specific factors companies must consider when complying with children’s basic online rights. For instance, children’s rights to privacy and the protection of personal data are affected by a company’s monitoring technologies, surveillance procedures, data collection, analysis and retention policies, and profiling. Children’s rights to freedom of expression and access to information are affected by barriers to Internet access (including cost and literacy), content moderation, network or device-level filtering, prohibitions on pseudonyms, and data collection requirements for accessing content.

Any company that has an impact on children’s rights in the digital environment — from online service providers to game and toy brands as well as operators of online platforms, mobile service providers and device manufacturers — can use the checklist and find additional suggestions in the Toolkit.

Sarah Jacobstein, who leads UNICEF USA’s Children’s Rights in Business initiative, notes: “Both UNICEF and UNICEF USA encourage all U.S. companies to use our Toolkit to ensure that their products and services fully respect children’s privacy and expression rights in a digital world, including how they obtain, use and retain children’s personal data, ensure children’s access to information, and educate and inform children online.”

Both UNICEF and UNICEF USA encourage all U.S. companies to use our Toolkit to ensure that their products and services fully respect children’s privacy and expression rights in a digital world.

Patrick Geary, Advocacy and Policy Specialist for UNICEF’s Children’s Rights in Business unit, adds: “We’ve designed the guidance in way that it can be used to do a stand-alone assessment of a company’s policies and practices or integrated into some of the existing, regular assessments that many companies already undertake. We hope that companies will… use the checklist to identify ways in which they can improve their impacts on children’s privacy and freedom of expression. We will also encourage companies to share how they have used the Toolkit — the challenges they faced, the gaps they have uncovered, the commitments they have made.”

UNICEF’s Leadership on Children’s Rights In Business

Since 1946, UNICEF has played a leadership role on — and acted as an effective advocate for — children’s rights, with founding Executive Director Maurice Pate’s insistence that every child, whichever side her parents fought on during World War II, had the right to receive UNICEF’s aid.

Today, as a result, UNICEF, its country offices (in aid-recipient countries) and its national committees (fundraising in developed countries) retain a pivotal role in monitoring and advocating for children and children’s rights, nationally and globally.

Released in 2011, the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights established a global standard for what business must do to embed respect for human rights throughout their operations and business relationships.  

Recognizing a need for explicit guidance about what it means for business to respect and support children’s rights, the UN Global Compact, Save the Children and UNICEF led the development of a set of ten Principles on Children’s Rights and Business and released them in 2012.

The Child Rights and Business Principles identify a comprehensive range of actions that all businesses should take to prevent and address risks to child rights and maximize positive business impacts in the workplace, marketplace, and the community.  These guidelines offer businesses a practical “…sampling of over 50 anonymous good practices gathered from online searches or submitted by UN Global Compact participants in response to our call to share actions and initiatives that their companies are undertaking to respect and support children’s rights.”

Through their Child Rights and Business initiative, UNICEF and UNICEF USA are seeking to change business behaviour and practices as they affect children by collaborating with a range of stakeholders, including companies, government, civil society, parents, children, and teens.

Looking Ahead

Anamika Chakma, who was ten when this photo was taken, is helped by her teacher to learn how to use a computer in a UNICEF-supported "Child Friendly Schools" program in Bangladesh. ©UNICEF/UNI157767/Mawa

UNICEF and UNICEF USA’s Children’s Rights and Business initiative currently focuses on global supply chains, the information and communication technology (ICT) sector, marketing to children, and the financial industry.

As Sarah Jacobstein explains, “Looking ahead, UNICEF USA seeks to ensure that hundreds of thousands of children, both domestically and abroad, benefit directly through our new and current partnerships with American businesses. We also want to assist all of our current corporate partners as they integrate respect for children’s rights more fully into their business activities and relationships. Finally, we seek to engage new private and philanthropic sector supporters to advance the cause of children’s rights in business around the world and help put more ‘children first’ no matter who they are or where they live.”

We seek to engage new private and philanthropic sector supporters to advance the cause of children’s rights in business around the world and help put more ‘children first’ no matter who they are or where they live.

What You and Your Company Can Do Now

If you — or your company — are interested in learning more about how to protect children online while empowering their freedom of expression, we urge you to access our Toolkit now.


Access Toolkit


Top photo: Children use a computer at a UNICEF-supported, small-group home in the southeastern city of Rustavi, Georgia. ©UNICEF/UNI109403/Pirozzi