Irish Government defeated on plan to keep digital age of consent at 13

17 May 2018

Image: Dean Drobot/Shutterstock

It will now be illegal to process data for digital marketing purposes of a child under 16 in Ireland.

The Government of Ireland has been narrowly defeated on key data protection legislation that would have brought the age of digital consent in Ireland to 13.

Instead, deputies in the Irish Parliament, Dáil Éireann, voted 55 to 51 to accept 16 as the age of digital consent.

It is understood that at least 15 members of the ruling Fine Gael party were not in the Dáil chambers when the crucial vote was cast.

The Dáil also accepted an amendment from Sinn Féin’s justice spokesperson, Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire, that it would be illegal for companies or organisations to profile children based on their data and directly market to them.

It will now be an offence for any company or body to process personal data of anyone under 16 for the “purpose of direct marketing, profiling or microtargeting”.

Growing up safely in the age of digital

In July 2017, the Irish Cabinet agreed that the digital age of consent for access to services without parental approval should be set at 13 in line with countries such as Sweden, Denmark and Finland.

However, in recent months, a furious debate ensued whereby people – including the director of the Cyberpsychology Research Network, Dr Mary Aiken – warned that 13 is too low and leaves youngsters open to malicious and manipulative psychological targeting. Aiken pointed to research that indicated adolescents experienced greater unhappiness through their teenage years if they went online too young.

Entrpreneur Dylan Collins, head of the kid-safe online marketing global giant SuperAwesome, also hit out at the proposed age limit. Collins said he believed the Irish Government needed to reconsider setting the digital age of consent as low as 13 when Germany is setting the age limit at 16, France at 15 and China, where the digital age of consent is a new concept, is opting for 14.

On the other hand, groups such as the Digital Youth Council have recently called for the age of digital consent to be 13, arguing that the emphasis should be on teaching young people digital safety skills rather than enforcing an outright age limit up to 16.

“Learning how to cross the road is far more useful than hoping for a ban on cars. In the same way, education and a focus on developing critical thinking will be far more useful tools for young people and the adults in their lives than an increased digital age of consent, which risks providing a false sense of security,” said Mary Cunningham, director of the National Youth Council.

Under the incoming GDPR, member states are free to set their national age between 13 and 16. In Ireland, 13 has long been the de facto age of consent for signing up to all popular social media platforms and other web services.

Either way, the matter for now is decided and the age of digital consent will be 16.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years