site.btaBulgarian Safer Internet Centre May Shut Down for Lack of State Co-financing
The Bulgarian Safer Internet Centre (BSIC) may go out of operation in three months' time because the State has not found adequate mechanism to co-finance it, officials and experts warn.
Bulgaria's National Ombudsman Diana Kovatcheva has approached caretaker ministers Ivan Demerdzhiev of interior, Krum Zarkov of justice, Georgi Todorov of e-government and Vesela Lecheva of youth and sports and State Agency for Child Protection Chair Eleonora Lilova about the risk of the BSIC ceasing operation and the SafeNet hotline being closed down.
Psychologist Yana Alexieva, Executive Director of the Parents Association, said on National Television on Thursday morning that despite the lack of financing the hotline and the helpline will keep serving the cause for another three months, "running on fumes".
The Centre was set up in 2005 by the non-governmental Applied Research and Communications Fund to protect children's right to take safe advantage of digital-age opportunities. In May 2006 it launched the SafeNet Hotline to tackle cyberspace content, conduct and contacts that are illegal and harmful to children, such as pro-anorexia websites, extreme pornography and violence, drug selling websites, pro-suicidal and self-harm sites and material.
The hotline handles alerts about violence and sexual exploitation of minors, child pornography and child abuse. Since 2005, it has received over 63,000 reports from children, parents, social workers, teachers and members of the public, and this number has soared during the pandemic, from 9,289 in 2019 to 17,855 in 2020 (of which 17,000 were about child porn, 16 about child eroticism or nudity, and 19 about child enticement). In 2021, the BSIC processed over 15,000 alerts, or which over 1,500 were referred to the General Directorate for Combating Organized Crime (up from 680 in 2020) because they concerned actual violations of the law committed in the territory of Bulgaria, to which the law enforcers can respond. The next most numerous complaints were about cyberbullying between children themselves. Approximately 10 alerts annually concern children targeted by online pedophiles. In the midst of the pandemic, pedophiles and human traffickers have become exceeding active on the internet.
Since April 2012, the Centre has also been running a helpline on phone number 124123 offering counselling about online bullying, harmful and dangerous content.
The problem is that the BSIC relies entirely on project financing. The European Commission provides half of the funding through its Safer Internet and Better Internet for Children programmes, subject to the condition that the State will provide the rest of the money.
Kovatcheva noted that the Centre is the only Bulgarian member of Insafe, a European network of 30 Awareness Centres promoting safe use of the Internet, and of the 43-country International Association of Internet Hotlines (INHOPE). In this capacity, the Centre implements digital literacy programmes, designs methods, coaches teachers and works with children.
The Ombudsman is concerned that without the BSIC, more than 16,000 minors who seek its support annually will be left on their own in the vast cyberspace.