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Statement: Ombudsman for Children, Dr Niall Muldoon, expresses concern about a potential amendment to the proposed digital age of consent

In November 2017, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice and Equality published a report that set out its views and recommendations on the General Scheme of the Data Protection Bill 2017. Among the Joint Committee’s recommendations was that the digital age of consent should be set at 13 years of age and that this age should be reviewed at appropriate intervals to ensure it remains suitable as technology evolves.

The Data Protection Bill 2018 provides for 13 years as the digital age of consent and requires the Minister for Justice and Equality to review this matter no later than three years after the relevant provision comes into operation.

Therefore, I am very concerned by current indications that parties to the Joint Committee’s report may table amendments to raise the digital age of consent to 16 years.

Fears about children’s online safety have featured strongly in the recent debate on this issue. As Ombudsman for Children, I am deeply concerned about the risks that children may be exposed to online. In my view, a comprehensive suite of actions, including legislative and education measures, is required to address these various risks.

Child protection and data protection are not the same. The digital age of consent is about the age at which young people can agree to the processing of their personal data. The protection it can offer is limited: it is not designed as a mechanism for protecting children from the multiple risks they may encounter in the online environment.

I am concerned that the digital age of consent has become something of a red herring in the current debate.

In my view, providing for 13 years as the digital age of consent takes more appropriate account of young people’s internet use and of the integral role that the online environment plays in their lives. It is also more in keeping with international children’s rights standards. It represents a more proportionate approach to balancing the opportunities and risks that the online environment presents to children and, with that, to balancing children’s rights in this environment.

I strongly encourage all concerned to work together to ensure that the suite of actions which is required to protect children online is developed and implemented without undue delay. I urge members of the Oireachtas in the meantime to support the current provision made for 13 years to be the digital age of consent.