Sunday 22 September 2019

The digital age of consent: why does it matter?

The digital age of consent refers to the age from which it is legal for data controllers to hold data gathered from minors
The digital age of consent refers to the age from which it is legal for data controllers to hold data gathered from minors
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Just a few days ago, Facebook announced that it makes over €1bn a month in profit from selling ads against our online profiles.

During the same week, fresh questions were asked about the appropriateness of Ireland's 'digital age of consent', as new EU-wide data protection laws approach.

But what is the digital age of consent?

In the case of children, this largely concerns the age at which it's considered legally acceptable for big companies like Facebook (or any service operating online) to legally hold and process personal data.

This is important for one big reason: advertising.

Advertising budgets are moving heavily into online platforms, partly because of the accuracy with which marketers can target specific groups and demographics, including kids. For example, on Facebook, it's possible to target an ad so that only young females who live in Dublin and have certain preferences will see it.

Ireland has opted for the lowest age permissible under upcoming EU data law - 13. This compares to more privacy-focused countries such as Germany, which opted for 16 as a digital age of consent.

In Ireland, it means that Facebook, Google, Twitter or any other company can mostly (though not fully) use a 13-year-old's personal information in the same way they would use an adult's information.

While the big tech companies were all in favour of the lower age of consent, so were almost all of the child protection agencies and children's rights advocates. That's because they see access to internet services as a critical source of information for children who cannot, for a variety of reasons, turn to an adult for help.

However, with a new focus on a digital age of consent comes new penalties for those who flout it.

Companies that are found to be marketing to children under the age of 13 could be in line for hefty penalties.

For instance, companies can no longer track children around the internet in the same way they legally track adults. Doing so attracts big fines, as toy companies Mattel, Hasbro and two others recently discovered when they were collectively fined almost €800,000 in the US for ad-related monitoring of kids' online behaviour.

Similar restrictions are set to be tightened in Europe in tandem with the new EU-wide data protection laws.

Proponents of the new data privacy rules say that this makes eminent sense. It's one thing to fire off ads, offers and other inducements at adults. But targeting eight year olds on screens their parents aren't monitoring (in the same way they might a television) feels more than a little heavy-handed.

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