Shqip 22 Jan 16

Albanian Children: Online, Unsupervised and at Risk

Children are vulnerable to predatory paedophiles and can too easily view pornography online, warn experts, yet access to parental control apps remains limited.

Erjona Rusi Tirana
Internet service providers are not obliged to provide parental control apps in Albania Photo: Pixabay

“She was just 13 years old and she met someone online, who told her he was almost the same age, 15. They chatted for some time and then they exchanged numbers to talk over the phone. It was then the girl realised he was older. The man asked to meet, and even threatened her, the girl got scared.”

So scared, says Mirgit Vataj, supervisor of Albania’s national child helpline ALO 116, that she refused to tell her parents or inform the police, afraid that making her situation public would lead to repercussions.

Eventually ALO 116 persuaded the girl to allow them to alert her school and involve local child welfare experts. However, child protection and legal professionals are concerned Albanian children remain at an unacceptably high risk of grooming by predatory paedophiles online.

“We have understood from talking to them [children] that they trust you so easily even if they don’t know you. The level of credulity is so high, while the level of awareness about internet danger is so low,” Vataj told the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN.

Despite these concerns, BIRN has learned that some major internet service providers, ISPs, do not offer parental control tools to manage communications or block and monitor sites visited by children, leaving minors able to chat unsupervised with strangers and easily able to access adult sites – including pornography. Even when available, it appears few Albanian parents activate control apps.

Stranger danger

“Every house has internet connection, even the most rural areas, [but] without accompanying information about its dangers, which has exposed Albanian society, especially minors, to paedophilia [risks],” warns Dr Fabian Zhilla, an cybercrime expert and professor at the Canadian Institute of Technology in Tirana.

World Vision survey: Child internet use in Albania 

• 85% of participants use a computer at home but 65% usually access the internet via smart phones
• Internet cafes, widely used by children in rural and urban areas, are not required by law to set up ‘child friendly’ computer logins and zones
• 44% watch pornography daily, 62% say their friends watch pornography daily while 45% unintentionally view pornography daily
• 47% have been contacted by strangers online but only 44% have received information about online safety from parents or specialist organisations
Source: World Vision Study on Child Online Safety in Albania (2014)

Zhilla was also part of team of experts who compiled a report on internet use by Albanian children for the Christian relief and advocacy group World Vision in 2014.

Researchers interviewed 871 children aged between 13 and 18 from both rural and urban areas in six regions across Albania. Forty seven per cent said they had been contacted by a stranger online within the previous year, 40 per cent of whom were foreign nationals.

Although there is no figure for the number of children who went on to meet strangers in person, Zhilla warns the authorities do not have a concrete strategy to analyse the risks posed by online paedophiles.

“The state’s reaction to the report was completely amorphous. I’m shocked because the study brought to light some data on paedophilia risks that institutions should have taken into consideration,” he says.

In addition, he believes the police do not have the capacity or resources to deal with the full range of safety issues Albanian minors face online, including bullying and coercion to engage in risky behaviour.

Evisa Kambellari, a criminal law lecturer at the University of Tirana, is also concerned.

“I’ve seen the number of criminal proceedings is very low. I didn’t hear till now, that someone is using… tactics, creating fake profiles, in order to catch dangerous people ending with arrests,” Kambellari tells BIRN.

In a written response to BIRN, the Albanian police cybercrimes unit press office underlined these types of offences are complex and involve cooperation with other institutions including, in some cases, international organisations such as Interpol and Europol.

“We must emphasize that in these cases investigations have been successful and we have identified suspects and brought them to justice,” the press office said.

“We can never say that resources are enough because technology develops very fast which means it requires the same response from us… but the cybercrimes unit has a consolidated structure and [officers are] trained for [investigating] these offences.”

Study: 44% of children watch porn every day

In addition to dangers posed by paedophiles contacting minors online, 44 per cent of child participants in the World Vision research reported they watch pornography online daily, something that child welfare experts say is extremely worrying.

Facebook concerns
Facebook is the most popular social network in Albania, with around 1.3 million users, or 45 per cent of the population, according to an Open Society Foundation study.

“There are people who confuse the internet with Facebook,” notes Igli Gjoni, sales and marketing director at internet provider ABCOM. “Many times in our shops, clients have asked for Facebook rather than for the internet.”

Facebook’s popularity among Albanian children is a source of concern among child welfare professionals, who underline paedophiles frequently use social networking sites to contact and groom children.

Experts also warn that despite Facebook’s policy of blocking all nude, pornographic and otherwise inappropriate material – not least because it allows users aged 13 up to hold accounts - children are still able to access these on Facebook.

“Apart from other websites, Facebook is a place where children who have accounts can easily access pornographic materials,” warns cybercrime expert Dr Fabian Zhilla.

Facebook’s community and user standards page states: “We remove photographs of people displaying genitals or focusing in on fully exposed buttocks. Explicit images of sexual intercourse are prohibited.”

However, some believe Facebook should ensure pornographic content is not published on the site at all. Bledar Bregu, an Albanian software developer who created the search app Findit.al, says sites can use algorithms to prevent publication of nude or pornographic content.

“Different websites or social platforms around the world do not allow the appearance of certain images using real time scanning… technically, Facebook can recognise certain patterns and not allow them,” he told BIRN.

In a written statement, Facebook spokeswoman Sally Aldous confirmed Facebook does not use software to prevent pictures being uploaded, except in relation to images showing child sexual abuse, which are also immediately reported to the authorities.

As to preventing children viewing pornography, Aldous underlined “young people aged 13 to 17 using Facebook benefit from additional safety and privacy features” but added: “We urge anyone who sees pornography on Facebook to report it to us so our teams can take swift action to remove it.”

 


Erinda Ibrahimllari, a coordinator for the Children’s Rights Centre of Albania, CRCA, which runs the ALO 116 helpline, says she has encountered children who are totally unaware of the dangers.

“Many times, children do not understand that what they are seeing or doing is a form of abuse,” she says.

Anila Sulstarova, a psychology professor at the Social Sciences Faculty of the University of Tirana, has seen several children who have been severely traumatised by exposure to pornography. She underlines children will imitate what they see without necessarily being able to understand or process it.

“Children are not ready to face these kinds of acts which they cannot realize and comprehend. Children learn a lot from TV, but from pornography they can’t learn anything. Instead they will just try to pretend and behave ‘as if’… it becomes a kind of trauma,” Sulstarova warns.

Legal experts say Albanian legislation does not adequately protect children from dangers they face online, such as accessing pornographic material.

Under Article 117 of Albania’s Criminal Code, the distribution and publication of pornographic material in a minors’ environment is a criminal offence punishable with fines or jail terms of up to two years. In addition, legislation protecting children’s rights set out in Article 24 also prohibits displaying pornographic materials to under 18s.

However, Kambellari says Albania needs new laws to specifically protect children from accessing inappropriate material online, including pornography, and hold those who do not adequately restrict access by children accountable.

“We can’t use the Criminal Code, which deals with traditional crimes, and adapt it to cybercrimes. It is a new phenomenon, manifesting in newer forms more and more. Therefore it is necessary to create a specific law,” she says.

“I think it would be better if we had a new criminal offence punishing free broadcast on the internet of pornographic materials.”

The National Computer Security Agency, ALCIRT, acknowledges there is no specific law to protect children from online dangers as outlined by Kambellari. “For us illegal is only what is in the Criminal Code,” says Rovena Bahiti, director of ALCIRT.

ISPs not obliged to offer parental controls

ALCIRT has signed a Code of Conduct agreement with ISPs under which they should aim to offer parental control mechanisms to clients, so helping parents monitor and stop children under the age of 18 accessing inappropriate content, including violent and sexually explicit material.

However, Bahiti confirms mobile network operators and ISPs are not obliged by legislation to provide parental control tools.

Albtelecom, with around 1.5 million clients, is the country’s biggest telecommunications company, yet it does not offer specific apps to allow parents to control and monitor sites visited by their children.

“One operator alone cannot do this. We need a new technical agreement which can get all ISPs together. It is necessary that all big Albanian ISPs unite in order to create common software and then apply it,” Alban Tartari, Albtelecom’s director of public and media communications, told BIRN.

Mobile phone operator Vodafone provides internet services to around one million Albanians and it, too, does not offer specific online parental controls, although it does provide a less sophisticated tool to control handsets.

“This application [Vodafone Guardian] is free and should be installed on both smart phones [child and parent], parents can choose which numbers they allow to call their child and block internet access temporarily,” says Kushtrim Shala, product manager within Vodafone’s marketing department.

Telekom Albania, another major telecoms company and ISP, told BIRN it “fully abides by Albanian legislation” but declined to comment further. There is no mention of parental control tools on its website.

Criminal law lecturer Evisa Kambellari believes ISPs should guarantee minors cannot view adult material online Photo: E. Kambellari

Experts, including the World Vision report authors, are highly critical of the fact ISPs are not required by law to provide parental controls.

“ISPs should guarantee that only those above 18 years old can have access to these pages. But there is nothing legally binding on this,” Kambellari says.

In a written statement, the office of Milena Harito, the Albanian Minister for Innovation and Public Administration, told BIRN it, along with three other ministries and civil society organisations, is drafting a new, comprehensive national plan for child internet safety that is due to be published in March.

Asked to comment directly on why ISPs are not obliged to offer parental control apps, the statement stressed the Code of Conduct was drafted by ISPs themselves in conjunction with the IT minister. “Regarding what ISPs should offer for parental control and filtering mechanisms, this process has been encouraged by us,” it said.

Rudolf Papa, director of the cabinet within Albania’s Electronic and Postal Communication Authority would like to see ISPs legally bound to provide parental controls apps, but notes the cost of doing so should be taken into account and that, ultimately, only sufficient demand from parents would ensure supply.

Still, he insists the Code of Conduct should not be dismissed as pointless: “Even if it is not legally binding it is still worthy. At the moment both sides [government via ALCIRT and ISPs] have signed it but the code… was not written for nothing.”

In addition to the high percentage of Albanian children choosing to watch pornography online, 45 per cent of all children who took part in the World Vision study said they are exposed unwillingly to pornographic material every day online.

“Most unintended pornographic material viewing takes place in internet centres [cyber cafes] as noted by 52 per cent of children in rural areas and 61 per cent of children in urban areas,” the report states.

World Vision has called on the government to work with internet cafes to enforce the creation of ‘child-friendly’ zones that allow children to surf the internet safely via pre-set logins that restrict access to adult sites, while also being protected from material being viewed by adults in the same venue.

‘Parents neglect internet safety’

Still, experts believe that parents are not adequately informed about the need to monitor their children online and the tools that are available to do so.

“Today there is a lot of software to control the internet but parents are not aware of this,” says Zhilla.

His comments appear to be borne out by parents BIRN spoke to. In fact, out of five parents interviewed only one was even aware that apps exists to help them control what their children access online.

One Albanian father of two children aged 11 and 15 claims his ISP never mentioned parental control products, while a Kosovan mother says she activated controls after her teenage daughter made some comments that made it clear she was accessing information about sex online.

ABCOM’s adverts state 1 in 4 children are exposed to pornography, but other studies suggest the figure is much higher Photo: ABCOM


ABCOM, another Albanian ISP, does offer parental control apps. However, Igli Gjoni, the company’s marketing and sales director, says parents rarely activate them even when they are available.

In fact, Gjoni claims only 200 out of 50,000 clients have activated ABCOM’s ‘safe internet’ parental control service, which amounts to just 0.3 per cent of their subscribers.

“We offer ‘safe internet’ service on three different levels, according to clients’ requests, without any charge, in order to give parents the possibility to block certain pages or control the level of access according to age,” he says.

“We always offer services and inform them, while most of the parents neglect [this]. I think they are not aware of the dangers their children face entering unknown websites and seeing violent and pornographic scenes.”

Albtelecom’s Tartari also notes that, while they don’t offer specific parental control apps, parents rarely pay much heed to the internet safety advice the company does offer.

“They [parents] should pay more attention when they first ask for internet service because usually they come and go very fast. Parents should be more responsible about dangers their children face on the internet,” he says.

Experts agree that parents are the first line of defence in terms of ensuring children’s safety online. In the World Vision report, 48 per cent of children who participated said they would tell their parents about online risks. Teachers and the police were identified as the least likely people children would report issues to.

Psychologist Sulstarova urges parents to take a proactive approach to protecting their children, and underlines the threats are no less real because they are online and apparently ‘virtual’.

“I cannot control the dark side of people, but I control and protect my own children,” she says. “My appeal is for parents only. Don’t let children go to internet cafes alone and control what pages they see.”

This article was produced as part of the Alumni Initiative of Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, supported by the ERSTE Foundationand Open Society Foundations, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network