08:15, November 18 304 0 theguardian.com

2017-11-18 08:15:02
Lords push for children to be protected against tech giants by law

Technology giants could be subjected to tough new regulations to protect the privacy and mental health of children as a result of a cross-party campaign that is likely to inflict a defeat on the government within weeks.

An amendment from crossbencher and film director Beeban Kidron to a bill going through the House of Lords has won the support of senior Tories, Labour and the Lib Dems. They warn that teenagers are being bombarded by bespoke advertising and endless notifications and can also routinely have their locations tracked by GPS.

They say that a barrage of information, based on data-gathering, is causing social anxieties, affecting the ability of young people to sleep and posing a risk of personal information being disseminated online.

The amendment to the data protection bill, laid down by Kidron, calls for technology companies to be subject to “minimum standards of age-appropriate design”. She said ministers, who are resisting the move, should not be “put off by tech lobbyists”.

Sources have told the Guardian that the government is likely to face defeat if it fails to offer a concession ahead of a vote scheduled for mid-December. If the amendment is passed the government would then have to decide whether it was willing to countenance the political headache of attempting to remove it in the House of Commons.

The push has the backing of the high-profile Conservative peer Dido Harding, the former chief executive of TalkTalk, who told the Guardian that she had come to the decision with a “heavy heart”.

“I’ve spent years in telecoms thinking that competition drives the right outcomes, but it doesn’t appear to be happening. I would love to believe that commercial platforms will move fast enough that you don’t have to regulate, but there is no sign that they are,” she said.

“It is difficult to reach consensus when there is no referee in the room. To make sure children are protected, we should set standards.”

Harding pointed out that society did not think twice about setting health and safety standards for childrens’ toys, or regulating television programmes.

“I know the positive power of the digital world – but there are downsides as well as the upsides,” she said, describing how GPS could help people and companies to know children’s location, and how devices made young people vulnerable to bullying 24 hours a day.

“You can’t make people completely safe but you can provide a seatbelt,” she added.

Kidron has argued that the key was preventing the commercial imperatives of major companies being prioritised over the rights and wellbeing of children. She warned that “eye-watering and inappropriate data-harvesting” being used to profile young people had major implications.

Her amendment suggests that age-appropriate design could include: companies ensuring that high privacy settings are switched on by default when a user is under 16; not revealing GPS locations; preventing data being widely shared; and giving children time off from endless notifications during school and sleep hours.

It could also require commercially driven content presented to children to be clearly identified.

Kidron argued that ministers ought to be “galloping towards the amendment”, adding: “In the balance of power between tech and children, government needs to be squarely behind children.”

She said a company like Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, was allowed to “collect, record and share a child’s home and school address, their location, their date of birth, their photos, phone number, their likes and dislikes, who they know, and the content of their conversations, including direct messages sent privately”.

Matt Hancock, the digital minister, said that the government sympathised with the sentiment behind the amendment, but disagreed that it represented the best way forward.

“Earlier this year we legislated for a new code of practice for social media companies, and are consulting on our internet safety strategy which will put it into practice,” he said. “We want to keep children safe online, but this particular amendment risks creating confusion about data protection responsibilities.”

A Whitehall source also said that a code of conduct had already been introduced in other legislation. But Kidron said that the code was restricted to social media companies and concerned with bullying and abuse.

“It is voluntary, and the government have gone on record to confirm this,” she said, arguing that her amendment would be enforceable. Kidron said that while companies preferred self-regulation, they “have not done enough over the last 10 years, or even the last 10 months to get their house in order. Childhood should not be for sale.”

The amendment is signed by Labour Lords frontbencher Lord Stevenson, who said ministers ought to consider the scale of support for the move. “If the government is sensible, it will realise that it is facing a significant group of peers from all sides of the House and will come up with a proposal that will achieve the objectives of this amendment.”

In a debate on the issue in the House of Lords, even Lady Shields, who advises the prime minister on internet safety, admitted that self-regulation was failing. “As the most vulnerable members of our society, the rights of children must be considered throughout the development of online products and services, and we must act to ensure that their rights and privacy are protected and respected.”