11 September 2012Countries throughout the region are considering ways to protect children from pedophiles and other unseen dangers on the Internet.
Regional data shows that 20 percent of children who use the Internet become the target of an online predator or pedophile. Of those targeted, 77 percent are 14 years old or older and 22 percent are 10 to 13 years old. Of those children who encounter sexual content online, 93 percent fail to inform their parents, said social media consultant and software producer Darko Disoski.
Several countries are taking differing approaches to the problem. Serbia created a task force two years ago to deal with online pedophiles, and has arrested 40 people to date.
In Bulgaria, meanwhile, authorities are giving parents more control over what their children see online by offering software that tracks webpages and keystrokes and sends a daily report to parents. The effort is designed to make it easier for parents to keep children away from sites where they could be approached by unwanted adults.
Macedonia's ministry of information technology and administration announced plans for a helpline to educate parents and children on ways to minimise exposure and to report illicit online material. NGOs were also asked to join the effort.
"It is important to bear in mind that this is a relatively new phenomenon, which requires a lot of attention and effort in the future if we want to protect our loved ones," Disoski, who is also an active representative in the NGO sector, told SETimes. "We are all here to help."
According to Disoski, NGOs already offer free software to protect children, explaining that with 62 percent of Macedonian families owning computers and 54 percent using the Internet, parents must seek the free software tools and to use them to protect children.
That recommendation falls in line with the ministry's advice as well.
"They [software programmes] can be obtained in any IT shop or downloaded from the Internet. Parents will be able to set parameters when their children can use the Internet; how long, which pages, and which content can be seen. It is one of the first actions to protect children over the Internet," Information and Technology and Administration Minister Ivo Ivanovski said.
The project aims to attack a number of issues on both the local and national levels, with key areas of concern including illegal content, child pornography, online courting, hate speech and the protection of children online.
Local centres would be established to raise awareness among the general population, which would help to create national campaigns directed specifically towards children, youth, parents and teachers, Ivanovski explained.
A national Internet hotline provider would co-ordinate the effort.
"We will focus on the development of simple tools for reporting by the Internet community, development and implementation of appropriate tools for privacy settings by age, as well as the wider use of content classification and wider availability and use of parental control tools," Violeta Gjorgjievska, executive representative at the Macedonian Internet Hotline Provider, told SETimes.
In less than one year, Macedonia registered more than 400 IP addresses that downloaded 4,323 different child pornography files. A query of the words "fight" and "beating" resulted in more than 300 videos originating within the country's borders.
Over 25,000 online videos were found to contain xenophobic or nationalistic content. When searching for profanity, researchers found 41 million cases in the Cyrillic alphabet and 106 million in the Latin alphabet.
Macedonia would require each of its hotline providers to join the International Association of Internet Hotlines (INHOPE), according to project plans. Established in 1999, and consisting of 42 hotlines globally, the programme is supported by the European Commission's Safer Internet Programme with a sole purpose of responding to illegal content in order to keep the Internet safe for its users.
Plans also indicate that Macedonia would strengthen the control and legal sanctions against those who endanger children and young people through the Internet. Criminal code defines 38 online acts as "crimes" for which a specialised unit would have prosecuting authority in addition to its existing role in the fight against cyber-crime and child pornography.
Though many believe that parents could be more informed, a great number of them appear ready to get involved.
"I honestly do not know what my children see on the Internet," Ole Nikolovska from Skopje said, admitting that her three young daughters spend six to 12 hours per week online.
"We don't have control over the content that they see, but I would like someone to train me or give me a programme which would allow me to see what they see, in order to protect from harmful interference," she said. "Any help is welcomed."