28th May 2019

The first step in redressing the balance of power between children and the tech giants

Anne Longfield
Children’s Commissioner for England

This year marks two important anniversaries: it is thirty years since the creation of the World Wide Web, and of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The digital world and children’s rights should not be in opposition – indeed, the internet can be an extraordinary force for good in children’s lives. But for too long the tech companies have failed to acknowledge the specific views and interests of children on their platforms, leaving many children unhappy and exposing them to harm.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee has argued that we can get the web we want, if we show some imagination. I want this year to be the year when we imagine the web we want for children, and just as importantly, start to make it a reality.

A crucial place to start is with the Information Commissioner’s age appropriate design code, currently out for consultation. The code builds on GDPR: the latter states that children merit specific protections in relation to their data and privacy, but says very little about what this higher standard means in practice. The code fills this gap. Organisations that fail to comply with it will more than likely be in breach of GDPR, risking fines of up to £18 million or 4% of global turnover.

If all goes to plan the code will come into effect before the end of the year, long before the government’s keenly awaited online harms legislation introduces a duty of care. It is therefore vital that the code is made as robust as possible, setting expectations high for everything that follows it – both nationally and internationally.

The proposed code consists of 16 standards that online services will be expected to meet, of which the first is particularly noteworthy: “The best interests of the child should be a primary consideration when you design and develop online services likely to be accessed by a child.” It also helpfully focuses on connected toys and devices, simplified terms and conditions, geolocation and profiling – all things highlighted in my recent work in this area. For too long the balance of power between children and the platforms they use has been firmly fixed in favour of the latter. This code could be the first step in redressing the balance.

Of course it would be surprising if there was not a flurry of push back from the tech companies, as so often happens when industry is asked to change its ways. We will be told it would take a very long time, that it will negate the experience of the activity or that it simply can’t be done.

Something I find particularly frustrating, that I have heard over and over again, is the claim that it is impossible to keep children off platforms they aren’t old enough to use, as there is no reliable form of age verification technology. This can’t be right. It will just mean that children have to go through some kind of process to show they are old enough, rather than immediately signing up by submitting a fake date of birth. When I put this to one company, they said that existing technology isn’t appropriate for them as it was important for users to be able to get online “seamlessly”. But why should it be? If it’s a choice between children having to wait a small amount of time to get onto a site, and continuing to allow them on sites they shouldn’t be on, then to me the answer is obvious.

The draft code is clear: if a platform cannot guarantee that its age verification methods are robust, they must apply the age appropriate design standards to all users. This is a game-changing proposition that should be welcomed with open arms by all those who, like me, want to see a world where children have the resilience, information and power to thrive online.

Whichever way you look at it, tech companies have some of the cleverest people in the world working for them. Can it really be the case that they can create driverless cars, see inside black holes and programme computers to beat the best human players of complex games like Go, but not find ways of making digital platforms fit for purpose for children. Of course not. And for the record, I’ve been reassured that it is all very possible.

My message to any platform tempted to argue that more time is needed to consider the implications of the draft code, any platform seeking to delay it being passed, is this: instead of trying to hold up the inevitable, it would be wise to get ahead of the curve. There is an incentive to be first out of the gate: by working on your systems now, even before the code has come into force, you will be better prepared than others who are late to the game. And when things go wrong, as they might, you will be looked upon much more kindly by those with power to wield – whether that’s the ICO in the case of age appropriate design, or a regulator for online harms.

The technology to help children thrive in the digital world is developing, but the problem is already here. We cannot accept inaction in the meantime. Respond to the consultation add your voice to an internet fit for children.

This post was originally published in The Telegraph