The 1834 Chimney Sweep Act pulled children out of chimneys and put them in school.
The 2005 Gambling Act made it illegal to invite or encourage a child to gamble, or even enter a casino or bookmaker.
The 2015 Smoke-free (Private Vehicles) Regulations prevented smoking in a car with a child passenger.
In each case a situation had developed that required adjustment on behalf of children – irrespective of the cost to business.
Enter the Kids’ Code (or the Age Appropriate Design Code to give it its legal name), published in draft form by the Information Commissioner in April, just as the wake of the Government’s Online Harms white paper had subsided.
The Kids’ Code has a more singular purpose than the wide-ranging White Paper. Its remit – to institute a high bar of data protection for children, and to largely remove them from a business model that relies on the harvesting and monetisation of personal data, whatever the cost.
Its definition of a child as anyone under the age of 18 challenges the industry norm of offering services to 13-year olds on the same basis as adults. It demands that if they have a minimum joining age, they must uphold it, bringing to an end the sector’s abject failure to deal with the 61% of UK kids with social media accounts who are underage.
The Code also tackles the toxic nudge culture – hated by renegade tech insiders like Sean Parker, Tristan Harris, and Tim Berners Lee – that sees the technology used by children littered with addictive reward features. It will make online services consider if their auto-play and auto-recommendations, their buzzes, flashes and notifications, are “demonstrably in a child’s best interests”. And it will prevent using a child’s data to target them with content detrimental to their health and well-being.
The Code’s 16 provisions cover a number of interconnected aspects of data protections such as high privacy default settings, geolocation tracking, data sharing, the security of connected toys, and the presentation of information in a child-friendly way. Collectively, it articulates the protections that a child needs to remain a child online.
But what of the response?
The tech sector has already started trotting out its standard lines: it’s not technically possible; it will have obscure and ill-defined ‘unintended consequences’; and it represents an attack on free speech.
All of this, of course, is code for two things: ‘this will affect our bottom line’ and ‘we’re tech – we should be treated differently’. No acceptance, in other words, that keeping children safe is the non-negotiable price of doing business.
The inventors of the digital environment valorised the notion that all users would be equal. A warming thought, until you realise that if all users are treated equally then de facto a child is being treated as an adult. In an interconnected world, removing the privileges and protections of childhood in an online setting means eroding the very concept of childhood itself.
The choice we face as a society, is whether to uphold our commitment to children and childhood, or to uphold the sector’s bottom line – while children continue to toil the fields of Silicon Valley. Nearly 200 years after we took kids out of the chimney and put them in school, that should be a no-brainer.
Bring on the Code.
A briefing on the draft Code and its provisions can be found on the 5Rights website: https://5rightsfoundation.com/uploads/5rightsaadcbriefing.pdf