French MPs have voted unanimously in favour of a law to protect children from violence and pornographic content on the internet by forcing manufacturers to pre-install free, user-friendly parental control tools on their devices. The bill now goes to the Senate for approval.
In industrialised countries like France, children have easy and early access to the internet on their own on devices like computers, phones, gaming consoles and tablets.
A 2019 survey showed that children in France own their first tablets as early as around six years old. A more recent survey shows that 82 percent of children aged 10 to 14 report going regularly on the internet without their parents.
While this does not come as a big surprise, the study also highlights the near absence of parental control over children's internet activity. Only 44 percent of parents said they had activated parental control systems on the devices their children use.
Most parents believed that monitoring screen time is enough to protect their children against violent, pornographic or illegal content.
But by the age of 12, an estimated one third of children have already been exposed to pornographic content, which could bring them into contact with criminal or paedophile networks.
There is a plethora of new and increasingly affordable devices for accessing internet. However, the existing systems to control children's access often require complex operations which can discourage parents from using them.
With this in mind, the new French draft law aims to make such tools easier for parents by ensuring that manufacturers, right at the start, install parental control systems in devices sold in France, allowing users to activate them at the outset.
The bill, examined in France's lower house on 18 January, was voted unanimously.
“Child protection on the internet is a major concern shared by all, not just at the National Assembly, but across the country and everywhere else in the world,” said Bruno Studer, the MP who brought the bill before parliament.
A member of the ruling Republic on the Move party (LREM), Studer is a former history and geography teacher and witnessed first-hand how violence and pornography are readily available on the internet.
“As a teacher, and a father, I am is constantly faced with this issue: kids and screen,” he told RFI.
Studer said he knew of a dad who gave his 12-year-old son a smartphone for Christmas. After finding the parental control tool too complicated to activate, he left it for the next day.
But he was woken up in the middle of the night by the cries of his son having nightmares.
The boy had searched for “naked girls” on his new smartphone and was profoundly shaken by the scores of images that popped up.
Protect kids from screen
“This is not a political topic or just a French issue," Studer insisted. "How can I protect my child? How can I help them grow up in a digital world? These are concerns everyone shares."
He has received positive feedback from tech giants like Google and Apple.
“They will have to change their device installation process but said that they will comply with the French law when it is applied,” Studer said.
“It is not as if those parental control tools do not exist, they are just not easy to find and activate.”
The bill will now be examined by the French Senate on 9 February and could be promulgated into law later in February.
The draft law – first tabled at the National Assembly on 3 November - also had to be submitted to the European Commission for approval because it would create a new standard for the French market that manufacturers across Europe would have to apply.
The European Commission will issue its recommendations on 21 February.
Studer told RFI that Germany is closely following what is being done here in France.