WITH NEW EU-WIDE data protection laws on the way, there has been a lot of discussion about the digital age of consent, but not a lot of clarity on what it actually is.

Despite what you may have heard, it’s not about putting age restrictions on access to the internet, or limiting young people’s expression online. It is solely about the age at which someone has the right to consent to their data being processed without their parents’ approval.

Parental permission

In practice, for the vast majority of children and young people, this is a question of at what age they will no longer need their parents’ okay to sign up to platforms like Facebook, Gmail, and Instagram.

But for these companies it represents millions in advertising revenue. When we agree to their terms of service, we invariably consent to our data being harvested and profiled so they can produce targeted ads.

Take Facebook for example. When you sign up, you are required to share your name, gender, date of birth, email or mobile number. From here, Facebook gathers and stores more personal data; it tracks and stores data about every ad a user clicks on, any additional personal information in your profile – your school, your hometown, your employment, friends in your network, and all of your user activity. That means every “like,” every status change, and every search of another person on Facebook.

Micro-targeted ads

Facebook then monetises this information by allowing companies to generate micro-targeted ads that are unique to the user. This means that a parent will never see the same micro-targeted ads appearing on their news feeds as their children.

Commercial companies send brand posts to young people and actively seek engagement through likes, requests for them to tag a friend, make a comment, download an app, post photos or click through to websites. The ads are often subtle, with gimmicks like games and celebrity endorsements.

The Social Democrats don’t think it’s right for the data of impressionable children and young teens to be used for these sorts of commercial marketing purposes. That’s why we are proposing to restrict this practice with an amendment to a draft law which comes before an Oireachtas committee today.

Data Protection Bill

The Data Protection Bill 2018 gives effect in Irish law to the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), and we’re proposing two changes to it.

Firstly, we would raise the digital age of consent from 13 to 16 to ensure parents retain a right to decide what platforms are appropriate for their kids to access. Secondly, we would prohibit the use of children’s data for marketing purposes.

This would mean young people would be able to grant consent to their data being processed at 16, while those below that age would require parent approval. Regardless of their age, companies would still be able to process, collect, and analyse their data. However, they would be prohibited from using it for marketing purposes.

The recent Cambridge Analytica scandal has brought home to us just how easily people’s online data can be misused. We really need to ask ourselves if we can trust large scale data processors like Facebook, Google, and Snapchat to use children’s data responsibly?

I just don’t think we can.

Personal data of children

Time and again, they have only acted to tighten privacy controls when they are caught out, or in response to massive public pressure. I am not alleging that anything they did, or are currently doing, is illegal, but that is at the core of the problem. These companies may stick by the letter of the law, but their sole concern is their bottom line.

We may all agree that harvesting the personal data of children for marketing purposes is repugnant. But if it isn’t clearly prohibited there is no incentive for these companies to stop the practice.

The Data Protection Bill 2018 going through the Oireachtas offers a chance for us to take the lead when it comes to banning the commercial monetisation of our children’s digital data. I am calling on our legislators to support the Social Democrats’ amendments to stop this pernicious profiling and put in place practical protections for kids online.

This piece originally appeared in TheJournal.ie and can be read here.

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