My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Jay, for enabling us to discuss the EU data protection package alongside the Data Protection Bill, but I will address my comments to the Bill.
Although I also welcome the rights and protections for children that the Bill offers, not least the right to be forgotten, there is one very important point of detail where reconsideration is urgently needed, which has already been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, namely the age of consent for children to give their personal information away online in exchange for products and services without a parent or guardian needing to give their permission. The proposals in Clause 8, as we have already heard, set this age of consent at 13. However, a recent YouGov survey of the public commissioned by the BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, shows very little support for this. Indeed, a whopping majority of 81% thought the age should be set at either 16 or 18. The Bill’s Explanatory Notes state that the Government have chosen this age—the youngest possible allowed under the incoming GDPR rules—because it is,
“in line with the minimum age set as a matter of contract by some of the most popular information society services which currently offer services to children (e.g. Facebook, Whatsapp, Instagram)”.
In other words, a de facto standard age of consent for children providing their personal information online has emerged, and that age has been set by the very companies that profit from providing these services to children. It might be that 13 is an appropriate age for consent by children to give their information away online, but surely that should be decided in other ways and with much greater reference to the public, and I do not think this has happened. It is certainly at odds with the results of this recent survey.
Moreover, Growing Up with the Internet, the recently published report of the Select Committee on Communications, on which I am privileged to serve, examined the different ways in which children use the internet through the different stages of childhood. We received lots of evidence that lumping together all young people between the ages of 13 and 18 was really not helpful, and that much more research was needed. To bow to the commercial interests of Facebook and others therefore feels at the very least premature, and the example of its usefulness given in the Explanatory Notes—that this would somehow ease access to,
“educational websites and research resources”,
so that children could “complete their homework”—somewhat naïve, particularly in the light of other conclusions and recommendations from the Growing Up with the Internet report, not least that digital literacy, alongside reading, writing and arithmetic, should be considered a “fourth R”; that the Government should establish the post of a children’s digital champion at the centre of government; that children must be treated online with the same rights, respect and care that has been established through regulation offline; and that all too often commercial considerations seem to be put first. So 13 might be the right age but it might not, and at the very least, further consultation with the public and with parents is needed.