Monday 21 October 2019

Tech giants should pay to keep kids safe online

Expert: Under-18s exploited in digital world

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Wayne O'Connor

Wayne O'Connor

Multinational tech giants must be compelled to fund an independent body teaching children how platforms like Facebook make money from their digital profiles, according to an EU and Unicef adviser.

Professor Sonia Livingstone said her ideal legislation would prevent social media companies monetising a child's online behaviour until their 18th birthday.

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She said teenagers should be free to access the internet unsupervised from the age of 13 but should not be exploited by tech firms until they become adults.

She told the Sunday Independent that a "failure of mechanisms" around digital safety contributes to under-18s being exploited by billion-Euro businesses.

Prof Livingstone founded the EU Kids Online research network and has advised the UK government, European Commission, European Parliament, Council of Europe, OECD and Unicef about online safety.

She is also a professor in media and communications at the London School of Economics.

She has been closely following Irish debates on data protection and the age of digital consent as so many of the world's leading digital media companies have headquarters in Dublin.

Much of the profits these companies make comes from monetising the information users put online - something Prof Livingstone feels should not apply to children.

"What our research shows is that children have very little understanding of the economy behind the apps they use," she said.

"It seems unfair that because they want to use those apps to be with their friends, for information they may need, a whole economy based on data is unleashed on them in ways no one has taught them about or explained to them. They have had very little right to exercise choice."

In this regard, the tech companies were failing children, she said.

She said they should be funding independent educational programmes for young users, with appropriate oversight and regulation.

"They say they are doing that but my problem is that while they are putting money in to some educational schemes on subjects they choose - to a portion of the population that is not known, it is not evaluated.

"If you said there should be some kind of independent educational body that had a mandate to reach all children nationally and to be subject to independent evaluation and oversight, that would be fine."

Her research shows children have an interest in protecting their information online but find it difficult to gain an "understanding of privacy and the data economy".

The onus does not fall only on the app providers to protect children. Prof Livingstone said parents and teachers have a key role to play, too.

"What we would like is for children and parents to be as empowered as possible but it is an extraordinarily complicated world. My sense is that over the last decade we have seen as many failures at self-regulation by the industry as successes.

"It would be timely also for greater regulation."

This area is more complex and not helped by the constantly changing ways people interact with technology.

Prof Livingstone highlights the new General Data Protections Regulations (GDPR) as an example. These have not been as effective as she originally would have wished.

It had been intended and hoped that GDPR would set higher standards around consent and how personal data is used and collected online.

Facebook, Google, Instagram and WhatsApp have been accused of forcing users to consent to being hit with targeted advertising on the platforms.

However, GDPR allows for data processing that is strictly necessary for a service to exist and many platforms argue they use data for "legitimate business use".

Prof Livingstone said a shift in regulating these firms is necessary so they cannot target children with any advertising.

This does not mean children should be prevented from using the internet, but she says age limits could be introduced in a way that does not exclude them. This presents a new challenge.

"At the moment we don't have a way of knowing how old a child is online.

"We don't want Instagram, for example, collecting children's birth certificates. We do have a failure of mechanisms.

"My dream legislation would be to have two ages. One would be to have an age of consent for children to use the internet unsupervised by their parents. That might be quite low. Then we might have a higher age at which children's data can be monetised by third parties - a bit like being old enough to sign a contract."

She suggested 13-year-olds should be able to use the internet without parental supervision. In turn, they would not be targeted commercially until their 18th birthday.

"I don't love that solution," she said, "but my concern is to protect children until they are adults."

Her research shows children understand and think about the information they share with friends, strangers and other people online but fail to grasp the idea that Big Brother is watching.

"So, what information is Instagram collecting about them, how it shares that, who with and how does that impact them?

"If a child puts their profile on private they have a sense that they have controlled width in their interpersonal network and who can see their information."

She said schools could be used as examples for children to understand this concept, in line with further education.

"There has been a big push on e-safety recently so children will understand not to share their home address with a stranger but then are puzzled they have to tell Amazon their personal address or their parcel won't be delivered.

"All these contradictions are quite complicated.

"Schools know a lot of sensitive data about children - how they perform at school, if they have special needs, if they have health issues.

"If children are taught about that, the school could become a model of good data practice that helps to raise children's understanding."

Ultimately, she said, it was up to regulators and the tech giants to do more for young internet users.

"One example might be Facebook and their online educational resources for teachers.

"When they talk about privacy it is solely about interpersonal privacy. So Facebook will help you understand your privacy settings but it won't tell you about what data they collect about you. They won't explain to children what they collect day-to-day and retain."

'Children's personal data and privacy online: it's neither personal nor private' is a lecture being presented by Prof Sonia Livingstone at Trinity College Dublin at 6.30pm on Tuesday, in association with the Psychological Society of Ireland. Further information is available at

Sunday Independent

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