Protecting Teenagers on the Internet

Today, Internet penetration in Kazakhstan has reached almost 50 percent. There are 49.5 internet users for every 100 citizens, compared to only 15 users per 100 in 2008. This has led to an increase in the number of underage users.

There are no official statistics for the exact number of young Internet users in Kazakhstan, but several popular local web sites provide numbers that help to make an approximate estimation.

One of the most popular web sites in the country has more than 5,400,000 visitors per month. Teenagers between the ages of 12 and 17 comprise 7 percent of all visitors, including 5 percent of all females and 2 percent of all males. Russian, European and American web sites tend to be more popular among Kazakhstan’s users, so the underage audience of those sites may be well above 400,000.

The popularity of the Internet provides young people with a whole world of opportunities for communication, education, and leisure. However, the Internet also provides a perfect environment for criminal activity directed at children and teenagers.

The Internet gives multiple opportunities, it is easily accessible to criminals and it lacks centralized and coordinated regulation. The Net also provides a level of anonymity that did not exist before. As the popularity of the Internet among young people increases, the criminal activity directed at minors grows as well.

Although there is no solid evidence to suggest that these two phenomena are directly related, one can hardly deny the fact that sex offenders who target children actively use Internet to find their victims. According to the Committee for Legal Statistics and Special Accountancy of the General Prosecutor’s Office, the number of sex crimes against children before the age 16 increased by 48 percent in 2011 compared with the previous year, and by a further 63 percent in 2012, when they amounted to 232 cases. Also, 248 rape cases were registered in 2012. Knowing that official statistics generally underrepresent the real state of affairs, it can be suspected that the actual numbers are higher.

Current legislation in most countries is very clear about punishments for sex offences against minors, but when it comes to similar offences carried out online, the legislation is not so unanimous. A number of countries including Australia, Canada, the United States and Britain have introduced the concept of “grooming” into their legislation as well as punishment for it. However, Russia and Kazakhstan do not have legislation covering online offences. Therefore, online offences remain unpunished. Criminals can be apprehended only if they managed to take online grooming one step further and secure a meeting with a child in real life. However, this usually turns out to be too late.

Russia recently passed a federal law “On the protection of children from information which causes harm to their health and development.” This limits the access of children to inappropriate information online, but it cannot protect them from sex offences that originate on the Internet.

A similar draft law has been created in Kazakhstan and was introduced in the Mazhilis, the lower house of Parliament, in autumn 2012. Despite the importance of this law, it only covers the question of protection from inappropriate information and like the Russian legislation it does not cover the issue of online “grooming” and online sex offences.

Recently, several measures for protection of internet users have been proposed by the government bodies. Last November, Deputy Prosecutor General Iohann Merkel proposed to add a chapter dedicated to cybercrime to the Criminal Code. In accordance with this chapter, authors of the web sites containing information related to terrorism, pornography and suicide shall be punished.

Merkel, however, acknowledged that it would be difficult to apprehend the owners of illegal websites if they live in a different country. Also, the General Prosecutor’s Office recently proposed to punish those who provide hosting services for websites with illegal content. However, despite these propositions, no amends to the law have been made so far.

When it comes to the responsibility of online community itself, the measures of protection for children are virtually absent within Kazakhstan’s segment of Internet. Namba.kz and Nur.kz are among the most popular Kazakhstan-based websites that can be classified as “social networks.” Their “Terms and Conditions” clearly state that the administration of the website is not responsible for any content posted on the website and that they are not responsible for any possible moral harm or damage resulted from the usage of the website. The terms of Nur.kz only mention that they have a right to delete illegal content. None of the websites provide guidelines for those who encounter disturbing content.

As of today, the underage online community on the territory of Kazakhstan remain unprotected while using both local web resources and the resources of other countries as well. Whereas local legislation has boundaries, the Internet does not have them and online predators know this very well.

Currently, the online safety of children lies within the hands of their parents or teachers who can closely monitor online activities. However, there is a problem here as well. The majority of parents and teachers simply do not have enough knowledge about the Internet, because they were introduced to it a mere 10-15 years ago. When it comes to the Internet, they may be even less confident using it than their children. As a result, the young generation of people in Kazakhstan seems to be left alone on the Internet.

In order to amend the situation, a number of measures have to be adopted by government bodies, community and individuals. The rapid introduction of relevant legislation is one of the most important measures that should be taken. Cybercrime is often no different from real life crime and it requires the same level of response.

It is also vital to raise awareness among children, parents, teachers and the general community. Once people learn to be vigilant while using the Internet, it would be much harder for the criminals to catch them off-guard. This can be done by means of seminars tailored for each group of users. Through such specialized training, parents, guardians and teachers will be made aware of the Internet’s dangers, they will be equipped with the necessary tools to protect their children and they will be taught to discuss the issue with their children.

Community action has already become a powerful international tool for the prevention of cybercrime, especially against children. Unfortunately, community participation and involvement remains relatively low in Kazakhstan. In support of international community action, the illegal Internet content hotline was established in Kazakhstan two years ago. Via the safekaznet.kz hotline, users can report illegal content and thus contribute to its removal from Kazakhstan’s segment of the Internet. Currently, the protection of children is one of the foremost priorities of the hotline.

It has to be emphasized that there is a number of actions that can be taken to prevent cybercrime directed at children and adolescents, including control over the financial flows, creation of specialized social networks for children only and other involvement by the business and general community. However, in such a young country as Kazakhstan, we have to start from the very beginning and take initial steps in that direction first. As soon as the foundation is built, we will be able to do much more.

The author is head of the department for illegal Internet content prevention and response of the Internet Association of Kazakhstan.

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