Europe's mobile phone operators have created and signed a voluntary code of conduct designed to protect children from accessing harmful internet content on their mobile phones.

Brokered by the European Commission the agreement responds to the findings of the Commission's public consultation on child safety and mobile phones, which was published today.

The main concerns about children and mobiles addressed in the consultation include bullying, sexual grooming for abuse, access to illegal/harmful pornographic and violent content, and privacy risks, in particular due to the inappropriate use of cameraphones and location services. The consultation also made clear that responsibility for safe use of mobile phones should be shared between parents and caregivers, mobile operators and service providers, as well as public authorities.

As part of the agreement, mobile operators plan to develop a self-regulatory code by February 2008, based largely on the principles laid down by the Commission.

These include being able to control access to adult internet content through the mobile phone, running awareness-raising campaigns for both children and parents about the dangers of bullying and sexual grooming through a mobile, the classification of commercial content according to national standards of decency and appropriateness and helping combat illegal content on mobiles.

The signatories of the voluntary agreement, called the European Framework on Safer Mobile Use by Younger Teenagers and Children, are Bouygues Telecom, Cosmote Mobile Telecommunications SA, Debitel AG, Deutsche Telekom AG, Go Mobile, Hutchison Whampoa's 3 in Europe, Jamba GmbH, Mobile Entertainment Forum, Orange Group, Royal KPN NV, SFR, Telecom Italia SPA, Telefonica Moviles SA, Telenor ASA, TeliaSonera AB and Vodafone Group PLC.

"This agreement is an important step forward for child safety," said Viviane Reding, EU commissioner responsible for telecoms and media issues. "The Commission will monitor very closely the effective implementation of today's agreement, for which the deadline is February 2008," she said.

"Our industry is happy to see the signatures on this agreement," said Kaisu Karvala, chairwoman of the trade group GSM Europe, but she urged content providers to join in. "We need the whole stakeholder community," she added.

Karvala said that it is difficult to censor all harmful material, including pornography. "The same content exists in other forms; it's not possible to stop a child buying a pornographic magazine, for example. It's a question of education and setting codes based on national sensibilities," she said.

Reding agreed that content should be attuned to national sensibilities which, she said, vary on different issues. However, she added that the benefits of mobiles for young people far outweigh the potential problems.

Self-regulation is the preferable course of action to ensure that mobiles are safe for kids, but if the industry can't do it then public policy will have to step in, the Commission said in its statement Tuesday.

"Self-regulation is seen at present as a potentially appropriate way to ensure child protection on mobile phones," it said, adding: "Public authorities at national and at EU level will have to monitor developments carefully and assess at regular occasions the efficiency of self-regulation to judge whether public intervention may become required."