European General Data Protection Regulation draft: the debate

We would like to share our concern regarding a modification to the wording of the European draft General Data Protection Regulation which would make it necessary anyone under the age of 16 to secure parental consent before using information society services. As experts working for the safety and wellbeing of children online, we feel that moving the requirement for parental consent from age 13 to age 16 would deprive young people of educational and social opportunities in a number of ways, yet would provide no more (and likely even less) protection. wish to protest in the strongest terms and request that you urgently reconsider this decision. As professionals in the education and child protection sectors, we have been following evolutions of the draft text of the General Data Protection Regulation for a period of nearly 4 years, since January 2012. The original version of the text proposed by the European Commission and the amended European Parliament text set the age requirement for parental consent at 13 for children wishing to use information society services. Moving the age from 13 to 16 represents a major shift in policy on which it seems there has been no public consultation.

The consequences of the proposed change are very significant for European society. Here are some of the areas that we think need to be discussed further before any such change should be considered.

Child development — although navigating the online world as an adolescent or parent is certainly not without challenges, well-established research on child development shows that, as children reach adolescence, they are curious about the world around them and are learning how to express themselves and interact safely and confidently with friends online. Adolescents need guidance from their parents and other trusted adults, and online services should work to provide tools that help adolescents make the right choices about their safety and privacy. Given the right tools and guidance, adolescents can develop critical skills of self-expression and relationship management in the online environment. Recent surveys have indicated that teenagers are by and large very knowledgeable about how to control the information they share online — more so than many adults.

Learning to use information society platforms responsibly in school — research also shows that schools play an important role in guiding children and teens in the safe and responsible use of information society platforms such as social media (cf http://www.eun.org/teaching/smile). As society, including government institutions, is increasingly using social media to disseminate important information, such platforms play an integral role in helping young people develop the literacy skills they need to play an active role in the world of today and tomorrow. The added layer of bureaucracy required to procure parental permission before any teacher could use information society tools in class for children under the age of 16 would undermine any possibility of schools fulfilling this role. At the same time, it would stop the valuable flow of guidance that young people are able to take home to inform their parents and siblings.

Building on years of good practice around offering online services to children aged 13 and above — given the prevalence of the Internet in modern society, adolescents aged 13 and above have long used online services to access important information about current events, conduct research for their schoolwork, and express themselves on issues of social, political and cultural importance without being required to seek their parents’ consent every time they use a new app or website. These are fundamental rights, as expressed in articles 12, 13 and 14 of the UNCRC and the recent Council of Europe publication (http://www.coe.int/en/web/internet-users-rights/children-and-young-people), which both underlines the importance of children having the right to have their voice heard in a decision that impacts on their future such as age requirements for parental consent.

Providing critical online support services for children aged 13 and above — sadly, we know that some parents do not always act in their child’s best interests. The Internet can represent a lifeline for children to get the help they need when they are suffering from abuse, living with relatives who are addicted to drugs or alcohol, or seeking confidential LGBT support services, to name a few. Although the new proposed text makes an exception for direct counselling services, we know that peer support through media platforms is very often more important for young people under physical or mental duress and can be the tipping point for encouraging them to seek professional help.

This higher age threshold may incentivize children between the ages of 13 and 15 to lie about their age — children aged 13 and above have long accessed online services; an artificial and sudden change to this threshold will likely result in many children between the ages of 13 and 15 lying about their ages in order to continue accessing online services — rather than asking their parents to consent. This development would make it far more difficult for online services to offer children age-appropriate guidance and tools to ensure a safe and privacy-protective experience online.

Online services have provided children with a safe place to explore and learn and indeed, according to renown researcher Dr David Finkelhor (http://www.pennlive.com/opinion/2014/12/hey_parents_the_kids_are_alrig.html), appear to have had a significantly positive impact on many aspects of safety and behaviour. How can we ensure that the above elements are taken into account, and not make it more difficult for children aged 13 to 15 to continue using the Internet in these positive ways, as they have been doing for many years? We understand the negotiations over the text are in their final stages. Either the negotiators should re-open the debate in order that experts like ourselves, but also parent organisation, educators and young people themselves, can participate, or they should revert to the previously agreed age of 13.

Janice Richardson, expert to ITU and the Council of Europe, former coordinator of European Safer Internet network, Luxembourg

SOS il Telefono Azzurro, Italy

Family Online Safety Institute (UK)

Diana Award, UK

Pablo García Mexía, J.D., PhD.Digital Lawyer/University professor, Spain

Cyberhus, Denmark