A child protection charity is worried that new European data laws pose a threat to its work.
Childline, run by the NSPCC, is a helpline and online service that offers free anonymous advice and counselling to children.
It wants to let children access its online service for free, without it counting towards their data bills — but this practice may be banned under new European Union rules.
Why? This practice of offering access to certain services and apps for free is known as “zero rating” — and it arguably violates net neutrality, the principle that all data should be treated equally.
This, net neutrality’s supporters say, ensures a fairer playing field, because it means telecoms companies can’t charge startups exorbitant amounts to get their data to customers quickly — and big incumbents can’t pay to have their services “zero-rated,” which would make them more appealing than new entrants who couldn’t afford to this.
But the flipside of this is that anti-“zero rating” rules may prevent organisations — like the NSPCC — from offering free-to-access services with a real social benefit.
“It is a huge priority for the NSPCC to ensure that every child or young person, including those who are most vulnerable to data poverty, can access help, support and advice from our trained counsellors whenever they need to. We have had a strong positive response from the largest communication providers in exploring the possibility of zero-rating Childline, however, we fully understand their hesitancy to carry this out under uncertainty as to whether it would breach EU guidelines,” NSPCC CEO Peter Wanless wrote in a letter to Berec, the European regulator.
“Whilst we are certain that Net Neutrality legislation and subsequent guidance would not seek to prohibit zero-rating of applications whose primary function is to provide a public service for the most vulnerable individuals in society, and where the main function of the application is to provide confidential counselling services for those in need of help and support, we would like to confirm that this is the case.”
Childline began as a telephone service, back in 1986 — but it is now mainly online. It says that 71% of the 300,000 counselling sessions it provided last year were conducted over the internet.
Being able to “zero rate” its service would make it more accessible to children, many of whom will have limited data allowances, or none at all.
NSPCC wrote to Berec ahead of the EU finalising new telecoms rules later this month. Telecoms company O2 already “zero-rates” Childline’s website, and the charity is in talks with Vodafone, EE, BT, TalkTalk, Three, Sky, and Virgin.
Berec did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Here’s a “slightly edited” version of the letter sent by Childline to the chair of Berec, provided by the NSPCC:
Dr Wilhelm Eschweiler
16 August 2016
Dear Dr Wilhelm Eschweiler,
The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) is the UK’s leading child protection charity and fights to ensure that all children are protected from abuse and free to enjoy their childhoods. As well as campaigning for changes to policy, practice and behaviour which will benefit children’s safety, we also work directly with children and families across the UK through our network of service centres and our national 24-hour helplines and websites.
Childline is our dedicated service for children and young people under the age of 19 in the UK. For 30 years, Childline has provided an essential charitable service for children and young people who have nowhere else to turn and it has become an established, much loved and much valued part of the national child protection system. We have recently launched a new Childline brand with a strapline ‘online, on the phone, anytime.’ The new identity reflects the way in which the service is available to children and young people wherever and whenever they need it; including a new, mobile-optimised website — https://www.childline.org.uk/ — created to make it easier for children to access self-help content and interact with counsellors online.
The need for ChildLine has never been greater with last year the website receiving 3.2 million visits and nationwide call-centres providing close to 300,000 counselling sessions, 71% of which were conducted online. Children inflicting self-harm and feeling suicidal were the reason behind a high number of these contacts, while reports of sexual abuse and online grooming continued to rise year-on-year.
To reflect the changing way in which our advice is being delivered and to continue our commitment to provide free and private contact for young people in need, we started to explore with the communications industry the possibility of ‘zero rating’ the new Childline website. We felt that this would send out a strong message to young people across the UK that in 2016 they still have a dedicated and confidential service ready to help them, which is accessible 24/7 and absolutely free of charge whenever they needed it, be it online or over the phone.
It was during this discussion process (see Annex A for a list of providers in attendance) that it became clear that there were implications to zero-rating Childline for the communications industry within existing draft EU guidelines.
Zero rating is discussed in several places in the draft BEREC guidelines, including a statement to the effect of: “A zero-rating offer where all applications are blocked (or slowed down) once the data cap is reached except for the zero-rated application(s) would infringe Article 3(3) first (and third) subparagraph (see paragraph 52).” In addition, the draft BEREC guidelines note that different forms of zero rating may have different consequences, and in determining the acceptability of a given form of zero rating, National Regulatory Authorities should take a case-by-case approach based on criteria developed from the terms of the Regulation and set down in the Guidelines. The NSPCC is therefore keen to clarify whether zero-rating Childline would fall under an acceptable form of zero-rating under the Guidelines.
It is a huge priority for the NSPCC to ensure that every child or young person, including those who are most vulnerable to data poverty, can access help, support and advice from our trained counsellors whenever they need to. We have had a strong positive response from the largest communication providers in exploring the possibility of zero-rating Childline, however, we fully understand their hesitancy to carry this out under uncertainty as to whether it would breach EU guidelines. Whilst we are certain that Net Neutrality legislation and subsequent guidance would not seek to prohibit zero-rating of applications whose primary function is to provide a public service for the most vulnerable individuals in society, and where the main function of the application is to provide confidential counselling services for those in need of help and support, we would like to confirm that this is the case.