Bishop of Chelmsford questions plan to set legal age of consent at 13 for giving personal information online

On 10th October 2017 the Bishop of Chelmsford spoke during the Second Reading debate of the Government’s Data Protection Bill. He questioned the part setting the age of consent at 13 for giving personal information online in exchange for products and services, suggesting there needed to be more consultation on this.

The Lord Bishop of Chelmsford: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Jay, for enabling us to discuss the EU data protection package alongside the Data Protection Bill, but I will address my comments to the Bill.

Although I also welcome the rights and protections for children that the Bill offers, not least the right to be forgotten, there is one very important point of detail where reconsideration is urgently needed, which has already been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, namely the age of consent for children to give their personal information away online in exchange for products and services without a parent or guardian needing to give their permission. The proposals in Clause 8, as we have already heard, set this age of consent at 13. However, a recent YouGov survey of the public commissioned by the BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, shows very little support for this. Indeed, a whopping majority of 81% thought the age should be set at either 16 or 18. The Bill’s Explanatory Notes state that the Government have chosen this age—the youngest possible allowed under the incoming GDPR rules—because it is,​

“in line with the minimum age set as a matter of contract by some of the most popular information society services which currently offer services to children (e.g. Facebook, Whatsapp, Instagram)”.

In other words, a de facto standard age of consent for children providing their personal information online has emerged, and that age has been set by the very companies that profit from providing these services to children. It might be that 13 is an appropriate age for consent by children to give their information away online, but surely that should be decided in other ways and with much greater reference to the public, and I do not think this has happened. It is certainly at odds with the results of this recent survey.

Moreover, Growing Up with the Internet, the recently published report of the Select Committee on Communications, on which I am privileged to serve, examined the different ways in which children use the internet through the different stages of childhood. We received lots of evidence that lumping together all young people between the ages of 13 and 18 was really not helpful, and that much more research was needed. To bow to the commercial interests of Facebook and others therefore feels at the very least premature, and the example of its usefulness given in the Explanatory Notes—that this would somehow ease access to,

“educational websites and research resources”,

so that children could “complete their homework”—somewhat naïve, particularly in the light of other conclusions and recommendations from the Growing Up with the Internet report, not least that digital literacy, alongside reading, writing and arithmetic, should be considered a “fourth R”; that the Government should establish the post of a children’s digital champion at the centre of government; that children must be treated online with the same rights, respect and care that has been established through regulation offline; and that all too often commercial considerations seem to be put first. So 13 might be the right age but it might not, and at the very least, further consultation with the public and with parents is needed.


Lord Arbuthnot of Edrom (Con)….Secondly, there are various issues around consent. The only one that I will mention is that the Bill provides that the age of consent for children using information society services should be 13. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford mentioned the YouGov survey about that. I actually believe that the Government have this right. It recognises the reality of today’s social media and the opportunities that the digital world brings, and the Bill also protects young people to some extent by the right to have information deleted at the age of 18.

Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Lab)….The Bill will formalise the age at which a child can consent to the processing of data at 13 years in the UK, which is the lowest possible age in the EU. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford referred to this point in his contribution and I agree with him about the need for further consultation with parents and the public, a point also made by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Williams of Trafford) (Con)….In bringing the Bill before your Lordships’ House at this time, it is fortunate that we have the benefit of two recent and very pertinent reports from the Communications Committee and the European Union Committee. Today’s debate is all the better for the insightful contributions we have heard from a number of members of those committees, namely the noble Lord, Lord Jay, the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford and my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe….

…Almost every noble Lord spoke in one way or another about protecting children online, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford, who referred to the Select Committee on Communications report Growing Up with the Internet. The focus of that report was on addressing concerns about the risk to children from the internet. The Government believe that Britain should be the safest place in the world to go online and we are determined to make that a reality. I am happy to confirm that the Government will publish an internet safety strategy Green Paper imminently. This will be an important step forward in tackling this crucial issue. Among other things, the Green Paper will set out plans for an online code of practice that we want to see all social media companies sign up to, and a plan to ensure that every child is taught the skills they need to be safe online.

The other point that was brought up widely, including by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, was whether it was appropriate for 13 year-olds to be able to hand over their personal data to social media companies without parental consent. We heard alternative perspectives from my noble friend Lord Arbuthnot and the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox. Addressing the same clause, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford questioned the extent to which the Government had ​consulted on this important issue. The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, and the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, made a similar point. In answer to their specific questions, 170 organisations and numerous individuals responded to the Government’s call for views, published in April, which addressed this issue directly. The Government’s position reflects the responses received. Importantly, it recognises the fundamental role that the internet already plays in the lives of teenagers. While we need to educate children on the risks and to work with internet companies to keep them safe, online platforms and communities provide children and young people with an enormous educational and social resource, as the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, pointed out. It is not an easy balance to strike, but I am convinced that, in selecting 13, the Government has made the right choice and one fully compatible with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, referred.