Conducting a Child Rights Impact Assessment for the Wikimedia Foundation
February 8, 2024
By Nancy Reyes Mullins and Ilse Heine
In today’s digital age, online platforms play a significant role in the lives of children.(1) While these platforms offer numerous benefits, they also pose potential risks to the rights and well-being of young users. Building on the findings from their 2020 organizational Human Rights Impact Assessment (HRIA), which identified risks to children’s rights as one of five categories of significant human rights risks facing the Wikimedia Foundation (the nonprofit that hosts Wikipedia and other Wikimedia projects) and Wikimedia volunteer communities, the Foundation partnered with Article One to conduct a Child Rights Impact Assessment (CRIA) in 2022.
Child rights are based on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and include the right to protection from harm, the right to education, the right to participation, and many others.
A child rights impact assessment (CRIA) is an important tool for organizations to identify and assess actual and potential risks to children that they may be involved in, evaluate the degree to which each child rights issue is effectively managed by existing policies and processes, and support the development of a holistic approach to managing child rights across an organization. In this blog, we will outline the methodology applied by Article One for conducting the Wikimedia Foundation’s CRIA, the business case for conducting a CRIA, as well as lessons for other organizations interested in conducting a CRIA.
Article One developed a four-phased methodology to conduct the CRIA for the Wikimedia Foundation, its Wikimedia free knowledge projects, and global volunteer community. The process was informed by guidance from the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), the Children’s Rights and Business Principles (CRBPs), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), and best practice approaches to assessing risks to children, including stakeholder engagement.
Phase 1 of the assessment consisted of a desk review, benchmarking, and interviews with internal and external experts. The desk review analyzed public and private information on the Foundation and Wikimedia free knowledge projects, including news reports, research assessments, and confidential information shared with Article One under a non-disclosure agreement, as well as public information which surfaced risks facing children in the digital environment more broadly. The desk review was supplemented with a series of engagements, including interviews with eleven Wikimedia Foundation staff members, two Wikimedia affiliate staff members, and seven external child rights experts.
The desk review further served to identify current approaches adopted by organizations that have a product or service that engages in whole or in part with children via a digital environment. We developed a benchmark consisting of criteria which considered an organization’s child safety policies, internal controls, educational content, and reporting tools, among other elements.
In Phase 2, we developed research tools to support the involvement of children in the assessment, including interview guides for virtual interviews with former youth Wikipedia editors and an online youth survey. The proposed approach and language used for this engagement were reviewed by the Wikimedia Foundation, including members from the legal, education, and human rights teams. External experts also played a role in reviewing the methodology and the questions proposed for the online youth survey, and their feedback was incorporated into the development of the final product. All tools were developed in alignment with Article One’s Ethical Research Principles.
The online survey (developed in Google Forms) consisted of 33 questions and was grouped into four sections covering topics related to personal privacy, Wikipedia content, interacting with the Wikimedia volunteer communities, and challenges reporting problematic behaviors. The survey was distributed in four languages: English, Arabic, French, and Spanish. For sensitive topics, precautions were taken to ensure that the content and word choices avoided causing harm. Additionally, the survey was structured to account for different comprehension levels and attention spans of various age groups, and to optimize engagement. Finally, participation in the survey was voluntary, and parental consent and the assent of the child were required. Survey responses were submitted anonymously to protect the participants’ privacy.
Phase 3 focused on facilitating the direct participation of children and those that had been members of the Wikimedia volunteer communities (such as Wikipedia editors) when they were children. Article One conducted virtual interviews with nine former youth editors. These editors were identified through desk research and connections with Wikimedia Foundation staff. The interviews lasted approximately 45-60 minutes. When asked at what age they started volunteering (editing) on Wikipedia, the interviewees estimated themselves to be between 9 years old (the youngest) and 15 years old (the oldest).
Aiming to reach a regionally diverse group of active volunteers, an online survey was published in four languages and distributed through the Wikimedia Foundation’s education team and made available for three weeks. Fourteen youths submitted responses to the survey. As described in Phase 2, significant resources were invested in the development of the survey and it’s expected that although participation was lower than desired for this assessment, it will serve as a valuable resource for the Wikimedia Foundation’s future engagement with children. The objective of the interviews and the survey was to better understand children’s unique experiences with Wikimedia knowledge projects and volunteer community affiliates, including child rights risks and opportunities, as well as potential opportunities for the Wikimedia Foundation and Wikimedia volunteer communities to better support them.
Reflecting on the process, the Wikimedia Foundation’s Senior Human Rights Advocacy Manager Richard Gaines shared this insight: “It was critical to include children’s voices and perspectives in this assessment, and we took several steps to ensure they were able to participate in a way that protected their privacy. For example, we established a methodology to survey children anonymously, while also ensuring parental consent and protecting the respondents’ privacy. To reach survey participants, the Wikimedia Foundation reached out to educators within the Wikimedia volunteer community who had existing relationships with both children and their parents and guardians to share the survey with their pupils. Conducting this survey was the Foundation’s first such experience surveying children, and the lessons learned have the potential to further improve how the Foundation is able to incorporate the voices of minors in its research and programming.”
Phase 4 brought together and built on the findings from each of the prior three phases to evaluate the relative priority of salient risks following an approach aligned with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Article One considered the severity of each risk based on:
- Scale: The degree of harm potentially suffered by the rightsholder.
- Scope: The number of people who are or could be impacted should the infringement occur.
- Irremediability: The degree to which the harm cannot be “undone” through a remedy.
In addition, we assessed the likelihood of each impact and the degree to which Wikimedia may cause, contribute to, or be linked to actual and potential infringements.
Having assessed the potential risks to children, and the relationship of Wikimedia projects to the risk, Article One identified gaps in the current policies and practices to manage these risks and developed a series of recommendations to mitigate adverse risks and promote child rights related to its free knowledge projects.
In alignment with the Wikimedia Foundation’s Human Rights Commitments, most notably to, “track and publicly report on our efforts to meet our human rights commitments,” the Foundation carried out a comprehensive review of the CRIA report and worked with Article One to prepare a version for publication that would provide meaningful transparency while protecting the privacy and safety of the CRIA’s participants and children more broadly. As the Wikimedia Foundation notes in the foreword, publishing the report, “provides an opportunity for dialogue with Wikimedia affiliates, volunteers, and policymakers around the world on our collective work to protect children online.”
The Business Case for a CRIA
Beyond the opportunities for stakeholder engagement, conducting a child rights impact assessment can provide many other benefits to organizations, both online platforms and other types of companies that engage with children through the delivery of their products and services. These include:
- Legal: CRIAs can help organizations ensure compliance with national and international laws and regulations related to child rights. Conducting a well-structured and independent assessment of the full spectrum of impacts they can have on children helps an organization identify potential risks and, by integrating the findings and relevant recommendations into their operations, prevent legal issues and potential fines down the road. Reference the Article One blog, “Five Steps Business Can Take to Meet Growing Expectations for Online Child Safety” for more information on regulations intended to address risks to children in the digital space.
- Reputation Management: Conducting a CRIA is one way to demonstrate an organization’s commitment to child rights and corporate social responsibility and can strengthen an organization’s reputation, most notably when the organization takes action to respond to the findings of the assessment, proving to stakeholders that the organization takes its social obligations seriously.
- Organizational: By identifying and addressing child rights risks proactively, organizations can reduce the likelihood of legal disputes, negative media coverage, or erosion of users’ trust in the platform.
- Improved Product Development: A CRIA can help organizations refine their products and services to better meet the needs of young users and their families. By understanding and addressing child rights concerns, organizations can develop more user-friendly and safer experiences, potentially increasing market share and profitability.
Key Takeaways for Business
Based on our engagement with Wikimedia, Article One recommends the following steps for organizations when thinking about and conducting a CRIA:
- Though it may depend on the size and nature of the business, typically, a standalone CRIA will help an organization understand the unique, contextualized risks to children impacted by the company.
- Aside from meeting an organization’s obligation to respect human rights, including child rights, under the UNGPs, it’s helpful to communicate to executives and other stakeholders (whose buy in is critical) that there is a strong business case for conducting a CRIA, including reputation and risk management, legal compliance, and user retention and profitability..
- Ground the CRIA in international human rights standards – specifically, the Convention on the Rights of the Child has been ratified by 195 countries, making it the most widely ratified human rights treaty in the world. The Convention provides a clear and universal framework for the promotion and protection of children’s rights.
- Speak with a diverse group of representatives in the organization (e.g., legal, risk management, trust and safety (T&S), human resources, human rights) to gain a complete picture of the potential risks facing children, as well as the mitigation measures in place and potential areas for improvement, as they know their functions best.
- Find safe methods to engage with children directly to better understand their unique needs and perspectives on potential harms (which may differ from that of adults). This includes exploring different consultation methods (e.g., surveys, virtual interviews, focus groups), while ensuring rigorous ethical and safety standards (e.g., trigger warnings, parental consent).
- Publish a public, executive summary, or full report of your CRIA, thereby facilitating better transparency in the industry at large and building trust and knowledge of the risks among your stakeholders, such as investors, regulators, employees, industry organizations, NGOs, and community members.
To learn more and explore what steps you and your organization can take to understand and address risks and opportunities for child rights, please reach out at email@example.com.
(1) In line with the CRC, children are defined as individuals under the age of 18.