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Children's rights groups angry at Dáil vote setting digital age of consent at 16 (they wanted it to be 13)

The government had put forward a proposal to set the digital age of consent at 13.

IRELAND’S LEADING CHILDREN’S rights and advocacy organisations have expressed anger and frustration after the government was defeated in a Dáil vote today around the digital age of consent.

The government had put forward a proposal to set the digital age of consent at 13 in an amendment to the Data Protection Bill.

But TDs instead voted in favour of a Labour and Fianna Fáil amendment to set the digital age of consent at 16 instead.

The amendment was carried by the narrow margin of 56 votes to 51.

Leading children’s rights organisations ISPCC, Children’s Rights Alliance, Spunout.ie and Barnardos were all supporting the age being set at 13 and have reacted angrily to the Dáil decision.

“In the area of children and child protection, the primary responsibility of legislators has to be to keep children safe, and to create the conditions that keep them safe, including regulation,” ISPCC CEO Grainia Long said.

This vote in the Dáil today indicates that the voices of children and young people across Ireland are not being listened to in relation to their online safety.

But what is the digital age of consent and why are charities angry about it being set at 16 rather than 13?

What is the digital age of consent?

The digital age of consent refers to the age from which it is legal for data controllers to hold data gathered on children and teenagers.

An official age has to be set by nations before the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) comes into effect on 25 May 2018.

As digital technology like smartphones becomes ever more widespread – and each generation becomes more tech savvy than the last – there have been increasing concerns about protecting the safety and privacy of children online.

While there are various measures parents and guardians can take to protect their children, some people don’t think this goes far enough in stopping young people potentially seeing inappropriate content such as pornography or violence.

So what does this mean for children online now?

Basically, companies won’t be able to store and process the data of people under the age of 16.

This relates mainly to targeting and advertising to children. Big tech companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter will now be able to collect the personal data of children under this age.

Practically, it means that children won’t have full access to a large number of websites, as they won’t be able to legally consent to their terms and conditions.

(Of course, there’s nothing stopping people lying about their age to set up a social media account, which is one of the reasons groups supported a lower age)

Why was the age of 13 chosen by the government and supported by children’s charities?

In November 2017, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice and Equality published a report that set out its views and recommendations on the General Scheme of the Data Protection Bill 2017.

Taking on board the testimony of children’s advocacy groups and testimony, the committee recommended 13 as the digital age of consent for Irish children.

This recommendation was supported by government and put forward as the proposed legislation.

This move was also supported by Ombudsman for Children, Dr Niall Muldoon in a statement earlier this month.

He said that setting the age at 13 “takes more appropriate account of young people’s internet use and of the integral role that the online environment plays in their lives”.

Dr Muldoon also said that it was more in keeping with international children’s rights standards.

“It represents a more proportionate approach to balancing the opportunities and risks that the online environment presents to children and, with that, to balancing children’s rights in this environment,” he said.

Why was the age of 16 put forward by the opposition?

TDs from Labour, the Social Democrats, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin opposed the plan to put the age of consent at 13, instead putting forward 16 as the proposed age of digital consent.

TDs argued that 13 was too young, and that 16 would increase child data protection.

“The question we must ask is does a child at age 13 have capacity to contract?” Labour TD Sean Sherlock said last month.

“This is not about when children can go online or use devices, rather, it only relates to situations where the processing of the personal data of a child is performed.

The Bill at present sets the Irish digital age of consent at the lowest possible age – 13 years and it is my belief that it should be set at 16.

Sherlock also said that setting it at 16 would bring Ireland in line with Germany, the Netherlands, France and others “who have best-in-class approaches to protecting children online”.

Barry O’Sullivan, a UCC professor and founding director of the Insight Centre for Data Analytics, told TheJournal.ie recently he thinks the digital age of consent was chosen as 13, at least partly, for the benefit of social media companies.

“Under what basis did they make the decision? Because it would be awkward for social media companies if it was set at 16? Being out of sync with the US would have been a big, big problem,” he said.

Why are children’s rights charities so angry? 

Dr Muldoon said that child protection and data protection was not the same, and that the age of consent had become “something of a red herring” in recent debates.

By this he meant that it was misleading from the relevant issues of child safety online.

“The digital age of consent is about the age at which young people can agree to the processing of their personal data,” he said.

The protection it can offer is limited: it is not designed as a mechanism for protecting children from the multiple risks they may encounter in the online environment.

This viewpoint is supported by the charities mentioned above, who state that setting the age at 16 will create significant risks to child safety, will not be enforceable and will remove the responsibility from companies to protect the children using their services.

The ISPCC, the Children’s Rights Alliance, SpunOut.ie and Barnardos all said that a digital age of consent of 16 is not workable.

“In all policy decisions about the welfare of children and young people, we must listen to and respond to their lived experiences,” said SpunOut.ie executive director Ian Power

“Young people and their parents expect us to be debating real solutions to the very real challenges they face.

The decision today to raise the digital age of consent to 16 is not a real solution, it’s not even a workable solution, and the move will ultimately make it harder for us to protect children from inappropriate content and targeted marketing.

What happens now?

The Digital Age of Consent will now be set at 16 when the Data Protection Bill 2018 is enacted (it’s currently in the Fourth Stage, meaning it is close to becoming law).

The children’s charities have called for a number of measures to be introduced immediately. These include:

- A National Action Plan on Online Safety to be fully consulted on, published and implemented.

- The immediate creation of the Office of Digital Safety Commissioner, grounded in legislation.

They have also called for increased garda powers for detecting online crime and enhanced education on the issue for children, parents and teachers.

“These measures would make a real difference to children’s safety online,” the groups said.

Today’s setting of the Digital Age of Consent at 16 will not do so.

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About the author:

Cormac Fitzgerald

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