“Share your data if you’re looking for a wee stalker”. That is the response by a child from Edinburgh when asked about sharing too much personal information online.
Others see content that promotes self-harm and suicidal thoughts without searching for it. Another is sent inappropriate adverts when playing online games.
This is the backdrop to the introduction of our Children’s Code, a crucial piece of work to make sure that children can safely use online services.
The code came into force in the UK last year and it is already prompting tech companies to make changes to better protect children.
But we knew from the moment that we started drafting our code that its value in keeping children safe would depend on how the code was received internationally.
The digital world is borderless, and so many of the online services children access are based outside of the UK. That is one of the reasons why I’m heading to Washington this week for the biggest international gathering to help protect people’s personal information.
The more other countries require companies to protect children’s data, the more children in the UK are protected.
And the UK has an opportunity to influence real change based on the world-leading code that we have developed.
We’ve seen rapid changes in how British children are protected online following the expectations set in our code.
Targeted and personalised adverts are being blocked for children; children’s accounts set to private by default, plus location history turned off by default. Games and video streaming have geolocation unavailable or off by default. Social media platforms have security measures in place to reduce risks to children.
These are some of the types of changes we want to see on a global scale.
And there’s more to be done to assess the correct ages of children, give them privacy notices they understand, and to stop the creation of profiles using their personal data.
In Washington, the Information Commissioner’s Office will be talking to social media companies in scope of the code and building relationships with the regulators, civil society voices and lawmakers that collectively push for them to do better.
We’re calling for our code to be used as a worldwide model for regulation – to move beyond protecting children from the digital world, but instead to protect them within it by ensuring that online services are better designed with children in mind.
Our Children’s Code can be the best practice, bringing benefits to children and businesses globally.
We know that others are already taking notice. Two years ago, the Information Commissioner’s Office went to San Francisco, to speak with lawmakers, in order to encourage them to be inspired by our code.
We are pleased to see that California is now looking to introduce a children’s code of its own – the California Age Appropriate Design Code bill has its first reading in the California Assembly on 19 April. There has been progress, too, in the Netherlands, Ireland, Sweden, Canada and Australia.
President Joe Biden talked of protecting children in his recent State of the Union address, saying that “while technology platforms have improved our lives in some ways, there is mounting evidence that social media is harmful to many kids’ and teens’ mental health, well-being, and development.”
And American Senators are urging the big tech companies to extend the standards and protections in the UK Children’s Code to children in the United States who use their services.
We want to continue to support change that protects children in the UK.
The Information Commissioner’s Office has always played an influential role in international data protection, both as a regulator of a large economy and as a key voice in international privacy discussions. Data protection works behind the scenes influencing trade deals, civil liberties and confidence in fair elections.
Post-Brexit, we can be more fleet of foot, showcasing the UK as a beacon for innovation and business growth alongside a high level of protection for people’s rights.
As the Information Commissioner’s Office regulates all companies operating in the UK or targeting UK residents, wherever they are in the world, the Children’s Code demonstrates the opportunities we have to lead changes internationally that bring real benefits for the UK.
Our work in Washington and beyond has never been more important.
John Edwards is the UK Information Commissioner