Only kids-focused sites may gain from age-gating tweak in data bill

Internet giants like Facebook and Google may not benefit from a new clause in the latest Data Bill that seeks to lower the age of consent to below 18 years for certain companies which can show that they process data in a “verifiably safe” manner, a senior government official told ET.

The clause will be open only to some platforms that are “totally child-focussed” like edtech and health tech, the official said. These platforms can apply to be notified by the government as “extremely safe” for children. It won’t be “applicable to significant social media intermediaries (SSMIs)”, the official added.

SSMIs are large Internet platforms with more than 5 million users and include Facebook, Instagram, Google’s YouTube, Sharechat and Twitter.

Lowering the legal user age for giving consent was one of the biggest demands of Facebook and Google, as that would have significant impact on their business in the country. The fact that they won’t be able to apply for concession under this clause may come as a big setback for them.

ET had reported on July 11 that the Digital Personal Data Protection Bill, 2023, is likely to give the central government power to lower the age of consent from 18 years for some companies which can demonstrate that they process such data in a “verifiably safe” manner. The age, however, cannot drop below 14 in any case.

“There is a provision in the Digital Personal Data Protection Bill that encourages platforms like education platforms to develop into spaces that are safer for children. As platforms get verifiably safe, especially those that serve children, they can apply to the government to reduce the age beyond which parental consent is mandatory,” the person added.

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Allowing the data of children to be processed in some circumstances is in variance with the draft released by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology in November last year. In that draft, the government had set the age gate at 18 years and mandated that data of any user below this age must have explicit parental consent.Companies and experts had pointed out that international norms for age of consent is 16 and argued that a significant part of the population will have to go through many hoops to get Internet access if the government maintains the age at 18 and above.

Companies such as Facebook-owner Meta, Google and Snap, which have users below the age of 18 years, will have to seek explicit parental consent for processing any data.

In a recent interview to ET, Meta’s vice president and global head of safety Antigone Davis said governments should not put in strict age-gating requirements for users as, according to her, it defeats the purpose of keeping the Internet open and safe for young users.

The government official cited earlier said if firms apart from significant social media intermediaries make their platforms even more safe for children with the criteria laid down by the government, they will then be notified as ‘extremely safe’ for children and can have a lower threshold of age. However, the person explicitly stated that the true test will be whether these platforms can live up to the ‘extremely safe’ tag.

“The idea is to incentivise some platforms that are totally child-focussed, that if they create additional safeguards, they can then apply saying that ‘we are safe’ and these are the criterion in safety that we have implemented and the government can say – okay fine, children below that particular age to a certain barrier can also do it without consent,” he said.

The updated draft of the Bill was recently cleared by the Cabinet and is likely to be tabled in the monsoon session of Parliament.

Earlier, when ET had reported about this, a senior government official had said that the updated provision would empower the government to allow the processing of personal data of children only in circumstances where a child is the ultimate beneficiary.

“In certain critical sectors such as healthcare or where the child is the end beneficiary of a government scheme, there might arise the need for data to be processed. Under no circumstances, however, such data will be allowed to be used to serve personal advertisements or any harmful content,” the official had said at the time.

The renewed draft of the Bill establishes a legal framework for processing digital personal data while protecting an individual’s right to privacy. It has gone through multiple iterations since 2018 when the first draft was made public by the Justice BN Srikrishna Committee.

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