Code to protect kids online now fully in force

3 September 2021   By Dr Lucy Brown, Editor

End of 12-month transition period means online services must now fully implement the Children's Code on their websites and apps.

The Code aims to put the privacy of kids at the heart of the online services they use and access.

So far, the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) say companies like Google and TikTok have already made significant changes to their child privacy measures recently.

The ICO also confirmed they are looking at how organisations can verify or estimate the age of child users and will publish more details on this in the autumn.

children using internet

Children's Code

The full name for the Children's Code is the Age Appropriate Design Code. Last September marked the start of a 12-month transition period for companies to become familiar with their new obligations, but now the ICO will start pushing enforcement action if websites and apps don't meet their responsibilities.

There are 15 standards within the Code that companies must abide by. Some of the most important include:

  • Consider the best interests of the child when designing services they're likely to access
  • Don't use children's personal data in ways that may be detrimental to their wellbeing
  • Switch geolocation tracking off by default unless there is a compelling reason to leave it on and warn children when their location is being tracked

In addition, organisations must not use nudge techniques like in-app rewards or access to other features designed to encourage children to weaken their privacy protections or provide unnecessary data.

Positive steps

The ICO say the Code is already having a positive impact on the way popular services approach children's data and privacy.

They point to moves from giants like Google, Facebook, Instagram and TikTok to strengthen protections recently, including the decision by Google to block ad targeting and personalisation for children on YouTube videos.

While the ICO is willing to work with companies to get the controls right, they do have the power to issue fines up to 4% of global turnover.

The types of services covered by the Code include apps, games, connected toys and devices, plus news services likely to be accessed by children.

Critics of the Age Appropriate Design Code say it's unclear what the ICO expects of companies and want a clearer definition of the businesses and elements under the scope of the Code.

Protecting kids online

The Children's Code is one part of the Government's ambition to make the online world safer for children.

Over recent years, there have been several false starts and detours, with the idea of creating a dedicated internet regulator mooted in 2018 before it was put forward in the draft Online Safety Bill that Ofcom will have the power to enforce the rules stemming from that legislation.

Protecting children from harm online goes hand-in-hand with protecting other vulnerable groups, yet the Age Appropriate Design Code is a specific tool to look after the privacy of younger members of society.

However, the ICO has recognised there are still gaps in the regulations thanks to ambiguity around the age of users.

That's why they're looking to set out a position on suitable age verification methods to assess whether companies are following the principles of the Children's Code properly.

More information will be given on this later in the year and a committee from the House of Commons and House of Lords will report on the Online Safety Bill by the end of the year too.

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