Open Letter on the Digital Age of Consent

(Note: edited May 10th-15th to include more signatures added below)

In relation to the Data Protection Bill, we note that the report of the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality, having studied this issue carefully, recommended setting the digital age of consent at 13. It is therefore of great disappointment to us that parties to that report have now tabled amendments contrary to that recommendation. As such, we call on the Minister and the Government to remain steadfast in their commitment to 13.

With regard to the current situation, Ireland already has a de facto digital age of consent set at 13. As research such as the EU Kids Online Project has shown, we already have many issues with under 13s using online services in spite of this restriction. Setting the digital age of consent at 16 will not solve these issues, in fact, it will only multiply them.

It is worth stressing that the ‘digital age of consent’ is a data protection issue, not a child safety one. Protecting children from targeted advertising is quite different from protecting them from cyberbullying or online predation. Using data protection law to achieve an online safety effect is, in our view, extremely misguided.

In that light, far too much energy has been wasted on this debate when we could have been talking about how to actually protect and educate children about their digital rights. Our children need a proper digital education and we are failing to deliver this.

What this debate has painfully highlighted is how disconnected many parents feel with regard to their children’s online activity. Rather than delivering a knee-jerk response to those fears, the Government should commit to a properly resourced campaign of parental digital education.

Setting the age of consent at 13 would ensure that social media companies continue their efforts to try to make their online spaces safe and appropriate for under 18’s. If the digital age of consent is set to 16, online platforms would be able to argue that their spaces are for adults only, and reduce protections accordingly. Put simply, the higher age gives parents an illusion of control while at the same time letting industry off the hook.

Finally, given how few viable technical solutions to age verification have been proposed during this debate, setting the digital age of consent to 16 will inevitably lead to more young people simply lying about their ages. Whether with or without their parents’ help, this is probably the worst first lesson in digital education a child should ever receive. More to the point, this is unlikely to encourage a child to tell their parents if something bad happens to them when online.

As such, we, therefore, urge the Government and the Oireachtas to implement the recommendations of the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality in setting the digital age of consent at 13.

Yours, etc.

Dr Ciarán Mc Mahon, Director, Institute of Cyber Security

Ronan Lupton BL, Internet Content Governance Advisory Group

Ian Power, Executive Director, SpunOut.ie

Harry McCann, Founder, Digital Youth Council

Prof Brian O’Neill, Director of Research, Enterprise and Innovation, Dublin Institute of Technology

Mark Smyth, Senior Clinical Psychologist

Alex Cooney, CEO, CyberSafeIreland

Tanya Ward, CEO, Children’s Rights Alliance

Grainia Long, CEO, ISPCC Childline

Prof Joe Carthy, College Principal and Dean of Science, University College Dublin

Dr James O’Higgins Norman, Director, National Anti-Bullying Research and Resource Centre, Dublin City University

Dr Vincent Mc Darby, Senior Clinical Psychologist

Ian O’Grady, Senior Counselling Psychologist, President-Elect Psychological Society of Ireland.

Prof. Brian Hughes, School of Psychology, National University of Ireland Galway

Dr TJ McIntyre, UCD Sutherland School of Law

Prof Pat Dolan, Director UNESCO Child and Family Research Centre, NUIG

Professor Andrew Coogan, Department of Psychology, Maynooth University

Dr Brendan Rooney, UCD School of Psychology and Director of the Media and Entertainment Psychology Lab

Brendan O’Connell, President of Psychological Society of Ireland

Dr Gráinne Kirwan, Chartered Psychologist

Dr Dean McDonnell, Associate Lecturer, Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design & Technology

Fergus Finlay, CEO, Barnardos

Dr Marina Everri, Marie Curie Fellow, LSE