BCS survey: Evidence needed to set personal data age of consent

25 October 2017

Is 13 the right age for children to give their personal information away online without the permission of a parent or guardian? The public say ‘No’.

A recent YouGov survey commissioned by BCS, The Chartered institute for IT suggests some of the plans in the Government’s new Data Protection Bill seem to be worryingly out of step with public thinking.

The survey asked what the age of consent should be for children to give their personal information away online - on sites like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat - without the permission of a parent or guardian.

The Government, in its new Data Protection Bill plans to set this age of consent to 13 years old, but the responses to the BCS survey indicate that:

  • Only a tiny percentage of the public (2%) believe the age of consent should be set at 13 years old, as proposed in the Bill.
  • Instead, the vast majority of the public (81%) believe it should be set at either age 16 or 18, with non-parents tending to favour the former (43%) and parents tending to favour the latter (38%).

David Evans, Director of Policy at BCS says: “The Government has chosen this age (the youngest possible allowed under the incoming General Data Protection Regulations) 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 this age has been set by the companies who profit from providing their services to those children. This has been recognised in the Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety’s open letter to the Information Commissioner’s Office earlier this year.”

David continues: “It may be that 13 is an appropriate age of consent for children to give their information away online, but importantly, we think this should be decided based on evidence from industry and the public, and not simply because it suits the social media platforms.”

Our YouGov survey results indicate the Government’s intentions to legally set the age of consent at 13 jars significantly with the views of the UK public. BCS would like to see some clear public consultation on the matter, rather than the Government simply putting into legislation a standard which the public is apparently so uncomfortable with.”

The Institute’s conversations on the subject with other bodies, including children’s charities, educators and health professionals, indicate that this is a far more complex issue than appears to have been properly considered. Whilst the protection of young people online related to the question of age verification and what should and shouldn’t be accessible has been a dominant policy area, enabling and empowering them as safe and knowledgeable online citizens is a separate conversation which BCS doesn’t believe has been properly had yet.

BCS is working with parliamentarians and industry stakeholders on the Bill as it progresses through Parliament, as well as on its own response to the Internet Safety Strategy. Through expert body partnerships and open consultation, the Institute is confident that clearly explained, evidence-based policies can be achieved for the betterment of all.

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