INTRUSIVE AGE CHECKS NOT REQUIRED

Society responds to ICO’s assurances on new Age Appropriate Design Code

age code

By Bill Heaney

The Society of Editors has welcomed assurances from the Information Commissioner’s Office that a new code designed to protect children while online will not interfere with the freedom of the Press.

But the Society, while welcoming assurances the code is not targeted at the news media, has expressed concerns that it remains vague in some areas and that news websites are still expected to take steps that may put off readers, especially younger ones.

The new Age Appropriate Design Code was revealed yesterday (January 22) by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). It is designed to force websites that target young people up to the age of 18 and those that could attract children – even if aimed at adults – to take steps to protect their data and information.

Newspapers and digitalThe new code sets out 15 steps sites must take or acknowledge, including the setting of privacy settings at the highest level. The news media industry had voiced concerns when the code was first drafted that older teenagers below the age of 18 were attracted to news sites and the code’s restrictions could harm their ability to engage and access information. Too draconian rules for age verification could also drive away readers and harm advertising revenues to news websites, the SoE and other media representatives had argued.

In a statement accompanying the code yesterday, the ICO noted that there was no exemption for media sites and recognised that children would be attracted to them, but added: “the ICO recognises that digital news media are not a core concern for children online, so the provisions of the code can be applied in a risk-based and proportionate way to reflect this.”

Ian Murray, executive director of the SoE, said that while welcoming the assurances time would tell what steps news media sites were now expected to take to fulfil the requirements of the code.

“The ICO obviously realises that some children – young people aged under the age of 18 – access news media sites, and media organisations will have to take some steps to recognise this albeit at a low level. There is however no explanation of what that means in reality and whether a future Commissioner’s office will take a tougher stance.

“A complete exemption from this code for the media would have been more appropriate, especially given that there is a great deal of encouragement for young people, including those under the age of 18, to engage with the news.

The media guidelines to the code also state that online news services will have to establish low level self-verification forms of age certification for their users to identify children but does not state what form this should take.”

Ian Murray added: “Again, the Society broadly welcomes the recognition that intrusive age verification for news site users is not required. But the requirement will still be there for some form of action to be taken by news site visitors to confirm their age which may prove unpopular even at the simplest level. Asking visitors to confirm their age – even a simple yes or no tickbox – could be a barrier to readers, especially children. There will probably need to be more clarification on this point.”

Once the code has been laid by the Secretary of State it will remain before Parliament for 40 sitting days. If there are no objections, it will come into force 21 days after that.

The code then provides a transition period of 12 months, to give online services time to conform. The next phase of the ICO’s work will include significant engagement with organisations to help them understand the code and prepare for its implementation.

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