Towards a safer online world for children and the vulnerable

elevenM’s Jordan Wilson-Otto shares findings from recent research on the privacy risks and harms for children and vulnerable groups.

Yesterday the Government initiated two consultations (on the Online Privacy Bill and the Privacy Act Review), both of which include a focus on better protecting kids. elevenM worked on key research that informed thinking behind these changes, and we are delighted to share the outputs of that research here.

Our research was commissioned by the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner and conducted in partnership with two leading academics from Monash Law School (Normann Witzleb and Moira Paterson). It provides an in-depth analysis of the privacy risks and harms that can arise for children and for other vulnerable groups online and makes recommendations for additional protections that could be put in place to mitigate these risks.

We’re proud of our contribution, and we hope it might serve as a useful reference for those drafting submissions to the Online Privacy Bill exposure draft and the Privacy Act Review Discussion Paper.

If you don’t have time to read the whole report, here are some of our key findings:

  • Children can be vulnerable online due to limitations in their basic and digital literacy, cognitive abilities and capacity for future-focused decision making.
  • Individual characteristics and situational factors shape susceptibility to harm, even for adults. Vulnerability is dynamic and contextual, and its causes are complex and varied. Identifying individuals who need greater protection is not always straightforward.
  • Children and other vulnerable groups face a wide variety of harms online. Mostly, these arise from monetisation of their personal information and the manipulation of their behaviour, but also from the social impacts of sharing personal information on their reputation and life opportunities, and e-safety risks. But it’s also important to remember that no environment is risk free, and participation, the right to take one’s own risks and the development of digital skills are also important goals.
  • Digital platforms have all adopted measures aimed at protecting children and other vulnerable groups. However, these are highly variable between platforms and are often difficult to navigate and limited in their effectiveness.
  • There is an international trend towards implementing additional privacy protections for children, with UK the most advanced, followed by the EU and the USA. We review enhanced privacy protections for children and other vulnerable groups across these jurisdictions.
  • Reliance on consent should be limited. In most cases with social media and digital platforms, even adults are not able to understand the conditions they’re agreeing to.
  • For everyone, but particularly for kids, privacy transparency should aim for more than mere disclosure of material facts, and should instead aim to educate, empower and enable privacy self-management in line with a child’s developing needs and capabilities.

Finally, we made a range of recommendations for additional protections that could be put in place either via an Online Privacy Code, or as part of the broader review of the Privacy Act in order to better protect our most vulnerable. Some of the key ones are:

  • To establish an overriding obligation to handle personal information lawfully, fairly and reasonably, taking into account the best interests of the child (where children are involved).
  • To place a greater onus on platforms to verify users’ age (taking into account any privacy risks arising from verification measures)
  • To strengthen requirements for consent, taking into account whether it is reasonable to expect that an individual understands what it is that they are consenting to.
  • To strengthen privacy transparency requirements, including requirements to collect engagement metrics for privacy notifications and privacy features, and to demonstrate that steps taken to ensure user awareness of privacy matters are reasonable.

We’re encouraged to see that the focus on better protecting kids online is already generating national and international headlines, and hope this research will play a role in steering us towards the right reforms. Ultimately, any new code or reforms to the Privacy Act must not only protect children and vulnerable groups from online risks, but also enable them to fully access and participate in the benefits of the online world.

If you would like to discuss this research in more detail, or would like us to assist you to understand the broader Privacy Act changes being considered, drop us a line at hello@elevenm.com.