I move amendment No. 13:
In page 28, after line 34, to insert the following:
Micro-targeting and profiling of children
30. It shall be an offence under this Act for any company or corporate body to process the personal data of a child as defined by section 29 for the purposes of direct marketing, profiling or micro-targeting, for financial gain. Such an offence shall be punishable by an administrative fine under section 140.".
This grouping of amendments, amendments Nos. 13 to 15, inclusive, relates to the question of children using the Internet and the desire of everybody in the House to protect children as much as possible while they are using the Internet. There have been many different suggestions of how best to do this and the discussion on Committee Stage centred around two actions. The first was to increase the digital age of consent. A number of people, including myself, proposed amendments in this regard to raise it from the existing 13 years of age to 16 years of age.
The other area in which I and others were interested was that of outlawing the targeting or harvesting of children's data for the purposes of marketing and commercial purposes generally. At the time, one of the amendments I had tabled was to raise the age of consent. I listened to the arguments put on the day and, since then, I have to say, I have done a good bit of reading on this. In particular, I have read some of the correspondence I have received from the Children's Rights Alliance, the ISPCC and Barnardos, and I have changed my mind about raising the digital age of consent.
The instinctive thing about it was we felt it would be better if children had to get permission from their parents and that there would be less danger to young teenagers but, having read the cases made by the various children's NGOs, I accept what they are saying about the false sense of security that raising the age gives. The other point they made is there is an issue about the raising the age to 16 in light of the virtual impossibility of enforcing that age, and a number of concerns set out by those groups relate to child protection.
Everybody is concerned about children getting onto harmful and pornographic websites and the fact it is so easy for children to do this. Basically, they can get onto them in a matter of two or three clicks. As we know, the most recent phenomenon is with regard to young people often sharing personal or inappropriate images of themselves online and through social media. There is general concern about the potential of this in terms of grooming children and online sexual abuse and, obviously, commercial companies selling and exploiting digital profiles of children. There is a whole range of concerns, and the NGOs made the point that out of the blue, the digital age of consent seemed to be just dropped into the general data protection regulation at the 11th hour without any evidence base for doing so. They cited the experience from the US, which shows that to get around this increase in the digital age of consent companies often simply avoid asking children for their age. Most children are, obviously, able to bypass the age verification mechanism. Given the fact that very often children are much more adept at using social media and using the Internet generally, parents have no idea they are able to bypass these mechanisms and, again, have that false sense of security.
The concern is this issue has not really been addressed at EU level, and many agencies are still waiting for this to happen.
The NGOs have drawn attention to the fact that there is a need to put a much stronger political focus on measures that can truly protect children. The NGOs make the following points: Ireland still does not have a digital safety commissioner; there is still no public body with the power to regulate the online world to make children safer; no-one has the power to compel the social media platforms or broadband providers we all use every day to prevent a child from engaging in harmful online content; and no-one has the power to set down codes of conduct for online providers. The NGOs make the case that this is not good enough. We need political leadership at the highest level on this issue, and we need it now. We urgently need politicians of all hues to make the digital safety commissioner a reality. The NGOs say this will make a real difference towards keeping children safer online, and in reassuring parents. The digital age of consent cannot provide this protection. The digital age of consent will be effective when it is thought out properly and when we have proper guidance from the EU, on which we are still waiting.
Putting the digital age of consent up to 16 years of age creates a very false sense of security. We may feel good about it but it actually does very little in protecting children, and it misleads parents. This is why I have not put my name to that amendment again for the Bill on Report Stage. When the Minister made the case for keeping the digital age of consent at 13 years of age, he quoted extensively from the Children's Rights Alliance and from the Ombudsman for Children. I put it to the Minister that both of those bodies said that while they did not believe it was right to raise the digital age of consent, they each felt it absolutely essential for the Minister to put measures in place to prohibit companies from harvesting children's data and from profiling children for marketing and commercial purposes. This is why I put my name alongside Deputies Daly and Wallace to an amendment to outlaw this practice.
In deference to the points I have made on accepting the Minister's arguments on the age of consent, will the Minister also accept the arguments made by the Children's Rights Alliance and the Ombudsman for Children that we absolutely have to protect children from this kind of targeting and profiling around their data? It must be kept safe.