The rapid growth in recent years of internet access and the technologies enabling its use has been a catalyst redefining the overall development of global economies, including Africa. The use of the internet and related technologies has also become a central issue within the human rights discourse in the current decade. The discourse acknowledges both the positive contributions of technology, such as those that enhance certain protections and guarantees and those that negatively facilitate human rights violations in other respects.
It is estimated that across the globe one in three internet users is a child (defined as a person under the age of 18 years) and that one in three children has access to the internet. Whilst there are gaps in the exact information on internet usage by children under the age of fifteen, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has demonstrated that young people aged 15–24 years lead other age-based categories on internet access and usage in every region of the world. Further, perhaps the most worrying statistic is that ‘the number of online activities in which children engage, the digital skills they develop and the online risks they encounter all increase as children get older. This is contrary to the common logic within the child rights discourse which posits that the capacities of children to handle complex issues evolve, and therefore that vulnerability to harm decreases with age.
Naturally, and in light of the heightened risks, the narrative regarding the protection of the privacy rights of children in the digital era has tended towards a protectionist and reactionary approach. Internet users regardless of age face pronounced privacy risks, but children are more susceptible. Through engaging in online activities, their personal data is collected, either voluntarily or automatically without considering the privacy implications of sharing their personal information online. Thus, managing information and relationships online as well as parental digital surveillance sometimes result in negative privacy implications for children. The statistics referred to above point to the urgent need to ensure the adaptation of national regulatory frameworks governing online privacy and the development of regional and international standards with which national laws should be required to comply.
Children’s privacy is a fundamental right guaranteed in international law, specifically under Article 10 of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. It is a facilitative right that is significant in the development of children and vital for a child’s autonomy. States Parties to the African Children’s Charter have an obligation under international law to adopt legislative and other measures to protect the child’s right to privacy. There is, therefore, a need to provide guidance and clarity on the child’s right to privacy in the digital sphere. Extensive work has been done by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Privacy (without specifically focusing on children). Studies on the privacy of children online have also been conducted by UNICEF, but there is a dearth of African-specific studies. As such, state and non-state actors in Africa need to design, define and implement measures that broaden the protection of children, including their privacy online. Such measures would target:
- Setting out defined regulations that ensure the protection of children in the context of social media use.
- Addressing violations of children’s rights within the digital space, such as cyberbullying, online sexual abuse and exploitation, and recruitment into harmful groups.
- Protection of children’s privacy, including protection of children’s data, created content, as well as providing tools and guidance to parents, caregivers and other duty bearers on appropriate supervision of children’s use of social media.
The Centre for Human Rights commissioned country consultants to conduct in depth research on the Protection of Children’s Right to Privacy in the Digital Sphere in several African countries, from which this report is derived. The aim of the meeting was to validate the consolidated report. The meeting considered the need for and the benefits of generating a comprehensive and contextual report on children’s right to privacy, during their interaction with technology in a digital sphere, in Africa. While the need for a continental study is needed, participants, also emphasised the need for the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, to be involved in designing an African, position in protecting children’s right to privacy in the digital sphere.
The report seeks to achieve the overall goal of enhanced protection for children’s right to privacy in the digital sphere. The intermediate outcomes include:
- Improved understanding of the rights of children in the digital space.
- Capacity for advocacy on the protection of children’s rights in the digital space strengthened.
- Improved and standardised protection of children’s right to privacy in Africa through the adoption of soft law guidance instruments by the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child.
Program – Speakers
9:00 – 9:30 - Registration and coffee/Tea
9:30 – 9:15 - Opening Remarks
- Dr Nkatha Murungi,
Assistant Director, Programme
Centre for Human Rights
- Chair: Dr Elvis Fokala,
Project Manager Children’s Rights Unit,
Centre for Human Rights
- 9:20 – 9:35
Prof Ann Skelton – Professor of Law, Faculty of Law, University of Pretoria, Member of the UN Committee on the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Salient features of the UNCRC’ General Comment No 25 on Children's Rights in Relation to the Digital Environment
- 9:35 – 9:50
Ms Opal Sibanda, Legal Researcher, African Children’s Committee
Salient features of the African Children’s Committee's General Comment No 7 on Article of the African Children’s Charter ‘Sexual Exploitation
- 9:50 – 10:05
Ms Hlengiwe Dube, Programme Manager: Expression, Information and Digital Right Unit, Centre for Human Rights
An overview of the project, on Protection Of Children’s Right To Privacy In The Digital Sphere, in Africa
- 10:05 – 10:35
Prof Julia Sloth-Nielsen - Professor Emeritus, University of the Western Cape, South Africa
Presentation of the findings and report on Children’s Right to privacy in the digital sphere in the African Region
- 10:40 – 11:30
General discussions, questions, validation and way forward.
Livingstone, Sonia, John Carr and Jasmina Byrne, ‘One in Three: Internet Governance and Children’s Rights’, Innocenti Discussion Paper 2016-01, United Nations Children’s Fund, Office of Research - Innocenti, Florence, January 2016.
 S Livingstone et al Global kids online main report (2019) 7.
 It is imperative to highlight the current status regarding the right to privacy in national laws. For example, most constitutions provide for the right to privacy and other jurisdictions even have specific data protection laws, but most of them do not specifically make reference to children.