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Data Protection: Age-appropriate Design Code

Volume 803: debated on Monday 18 May 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they intend to lay the regulation giving effect to the age- appropriate design code required under section 123 of the Data Protection Act 2018 before Parliament.

The Question was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.

The age-appropriate design code will play an important role in protecting children’s personal data online. The Government notified the final draft of the age-appropriate design code to the European Commission as part of our obligations under the technical standards and regulations directive. The standstill period required under the directive has concluded. The Data Protection Act requires that the code is laid in Parliament as soon as is practicably possible.

I am delighted to hear that, my Lords, although no date has been given. The Government have a bit of ground to make up here, so perhaps it will not be delayed too long. Does the Minister agree that the Covid-19 pandemic is a perfect storm for children and for young people’s digital experience? More children are online for more time and are more reliant on digital technology. In light of that, more action needs to be taken. Can she give us some information about when the Government will publish their final response to the consultation on the online harms White Paper, for example, and a date for when we are likely to see the draft Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny?

I spent some time this morning with a group of young people, in part discussing their experience online. The noble Lord is right that the pandemic presents significant challenges, and they were clear that they wanted a safe space online as well as physical safe spaces. The Government share that aspiration. We expect to publish our response to the online harms consultation this autumn and to introduce the legislation this Session.

My Lords, I was very disappointed to see in the final version of the code that the section dealing with age-appropriate application has been watered down to leave out reference to age-verification mechanisms. Is this because the age-verification provisions of the Digital Economy Act have been kicked into the long grass at the behest of the pornography industry so that we will not have officially sanctioned age-verification tools available any time soon?

There is no intention to water down the code. Its content is the responsibility of the Information Commissioner, who has engaged widely to develop the code, with a call for evidence and a full public consultation.

My Lords, is my noble friend the Minister able to tell the House the results of the consultation process with the industry on possible ways to implement age verification online?

We believe that our online harms proposals will deliver a much higher level of protection for children, as is absolutely appropriate. We expect companies to use a proportionate range of tools, including age-assurance and age-verification technologies, to prevent children accessing inappropriate behaviour, whether that be via a website or social media.

May I too push the Government to use the design code to cover the content of publicly accessible parts of pornographic websites, since the Government are not implementing Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act to protect children? Any online harms Act will be a long time in becoming effective, and such sites are highly attractive to young teenagers.

We agree absolutely about the importance of protecting young children online and that is why we are aiming to have the most ambitious online harms legislation in the world. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State and the Minister for Digital and Culture meet representatives of the industry regularly to urge them to improve their actions in this area.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the code represents a negotiation vis-à-vis the tech companies and thus there is no reason for any delay in laying it before Parliament? Does she further agree that it should be laid before Parliament before 10 June to enable it to pass before the summer break? This would enable the Government to deliver on the claim that the UK is the safest place on the planet to be online.

The negotiation is not just with the tech companies. We have ambitions to be not only a commercially attractive place for tech companies but a very safe place to be online, while ensuring that freedom of speech is upheld. The timing of the laying of the code is dependent on discussions with the House authorities. As my noble friend is aware, there is a backlog of work which needs to be processed because of the impact of Covid-19.

The guidance from the Information Commissioner says that for a service to be considered likely to be accessed by a child, the possibility of that happening needs to be more probable than not. Does that mean the probability of one or a few children accessing a site or that 50% of children might do so? Does the Minister agree that a 50% or one in two interpretation is not tight enough?

The noble Baroness has raised a good point. I will go back and review the guidance and perhaps I may then write to her with a response.

My Lords, which of the standards in the code is my noble friend the Minister going to concentrate on as we move into regulation? I am particularly concerned about the standard that requires connected toys and devices to comply with the principles of the code. As has been said, a lot of children are now in touch with these devices, so I want to be sure that the technical side of this issue has been completely covered when we proceed.

My noble friend is right. We must ensure that all the technical aspects have been addressed. Obviously, these will evolve over time so we will need to continue to stay alert to this. However, the wider aspiration of the code is essential as regards GDPR compliance. We are already talking to and working with the social media companies and others because obviously a number of aspects of this in relation to GDPR compliance are already part of our law.

The Minister will be aware of a letter sent last night by children’s charities setting out the many harms that have increased during the pandemic. They are now demanding that the Government should lay the code. My understanding is that doing so would take only a handful of hours for the Civil Service and just minutes of parliamentary time. Given that, can the Minister explain what is in the way of doing so now, apart from political will? Further, does she agree that this is an important test of the Government’s commitment to tackling online harms? If they fail to act, they will bear considerable responsibility for harms that might have been prevented.

The noble Baroness will be aware from the evidence given by my honourable friend the Minister for Digital and Culture that we absolutely see this issue as an urgent one but that we are unable to give a timescale at the moment. That is not due to a lack of will but simply that part of this is out of our hands. It is being actively pursued in discussions with the House authorities and will be dealt with as soon as possible.

I am delighted to learn that the online harms Bill will be laid before Parliament during this Session. Can I presume that the code will be laid in advance of that?

I thank colleagues and the Minister for ensuring that we have got through all 10 speakers with questions who were on the list. We come now to the fourth Oral Question.