We need a Public Debate on the Digital Age of Consent in Ireland and call on the government to set the digital age of consent at 16 in line with our European Partners

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On May 25th the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) comes into effect.

The GDPR proposed by the European Commission will strengthen and unify data protection for individuals within the European Union.

Article 8 of the GDPR regulation relates specifically to protection of Childrens’ data online.

This is an important piece of child protection legislation. It will make it illegal for an online company or social media site to gather and store personal data from children under a certain age (for marketing advertising or any other purposes) without the consent of a parent or guardian.

The EU has set the digital age of consent at 16. Each state can decide to set a national age of consent, but no lower than 13. EU countries such as Germany, France and Holland have all opted for age 16. However, the Irish Government has decided to set the Digital Age of Consent in Ireland at 13 (the lowest age permissible).

Leading experts in cyber security have told the Oireachtas Committee on Children and Youth Affairs that there are "massive risks" and "no benefits" to reducing the digital age of consent in Ireland to 13.

This legislation does not restrict a child's access to the internet, but it sets limits on the age at which a child can give their consent to an online company to use their personal data (for example a company can collect record and share a child’s home and school address, their date of birth, location, photos, phone number, their likes/dislikes, who they know and the content of conversations including direct messages sent privately).

Article 8 of the GDPR reads as follows:

“...in relation to the offer of information society services directly to a child, the processing of the personal data of a child shall be lawful where the child is at least 16 years old. 
Where the child is below the age of 16 years, such processing shall be lawful only if and to the extent that consent is given or authorised by the holder of parental responsibility over the child. 

Those opposed to lowering the Digital age of consent to 13 include CARI (Children at Risk in Ireland), An Garda Síochána, and Barnardos warned that this decision “needs to be made very carefully and with the maximum public debate possible."

So why has there been no public debate on this?

This decision will have obvious commercial benefits for large tech companies (many of whom have their European headquarters in Ireland). However, protecting Children’s’ private data should come first.

The recommendations of the governments consultation process (which included The American Chamber of commerce Ireland and Toy industries Europe) were very divided. All the children’s rights groups called for impact assessments, public consultation and debate to take place before a decision on lowering the age threshold could be made.

The arguments put forward in favour of lowering the Digital Age of Consent in Ireland are misleading. This legislation is not about restricting access to services or information. It is about protecting children’s data online.

Arguing that children have a right to a voice online and have a right to participation is valid and few people would deny this. Therefore, more platforms need to be made available where children do not have their personal data exploited as a condition of their use. The tools are already there to allow developers to build zero data platforms that allow people to talk and allow children to talk without any information being tracked.

Similarly, arguing the case for vulnerable children requiring access to vital supports online - Child support websites and helplines do not require a child to enter an online contract before allowing them access vital information. Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and similar commercial platforms should not be considered “safe places” for vulnerable children. The risks include breaching a child’s right to anonymity, children being targeted by advertising/marketing campaigns that exploit their vulnerabilities, and potential exposure to individuals online who might not have a child’s best interests at heart. 

This is an important opportunity for Ireland to legislate for better child protection online.

This bill is going through its final stages of amendment in the Dail. We demand an open and informed debate before this legislation is passed and we call on the Irish Government to set the Digital Age of Consent in Ireland at 16 in line with our European Partners.