Shweta Mohandas and Anamika Kundu
The pandemic has forced policymakers to adapt their approach to people's changing practices, from looking at contactless ways of payment to the shifting of educational institutions online. For children, the internet has shifted from being a form of entertainment to a medium to connect with friends and seek knowledge and education. However, each time they access the internet, data about them and their choices are inadvertently recorded by companies and unknown third parties. The growth of EdTech apps in India has led to growing concerns regarding children's data privacy. This has led to the creation of a self-regulatory body, the Indian EdTech Consortium. More recently, the Advertising Standard Council of India has also started looking at passing a draft regulation to keep a check on EdTech advertisements
The Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC), tasked with drafting and revising the Data Protection Bill, had to consider the number of changes that had happened after the release of the 2019 version of the Bill. While the most significant change was the removal of the term “personal data” from the title of the Bill, in a move to create a comprehensive Data Protection Bill that includes both personal and non personal data. Certain other provisions of the Bill also featured additions and removals. The JPC, in its revised version of the Bill has removed an entire class of data fiduciaries – guardian data fiduciary – which was tasked with greater responsibility for managing children's data. While the JPC justified the removal of the guardian data fiduciary stating that consent from the guardian of the child is enough to meet the end for which personal data of children are processed by the data fiduciary. While thought has been given to looking at how consent is given by the guardian on behalf of the child, there was no change in the age of children in the Bill. Keeping the age of consent under the Bill as the same as the age of majority to enter into a contract under the 1872 Indian Contract Act – 18 years – reveals the disconnect the law has with the ground reality of how children interact with the internet.
1. Age of Consent
By setting the age of consent as 18 years under the Data Protection Bill, 2021, it brings all individuals under 18 years of age under one umbrella without making a distinction between the internet usage of a 5-year-old child and a 16-year-old teenager. There is a need to look at the current internet usage habits of children and assess whether requiring parental consent is reasonable or even practical. It is also pertinent to note that the law in the offline world does make the distinction between age and maturity. For example, it has been highlighted that Section 82 of the Indian Penal Code, read with Section 83, states that any act by a child under the age of 12 years shall not be considered an offence, while the maturity of those aged between 12–18 years will be decided by the court (individuals between the age of 16–18 years can also be tried as adults for heinous crimes). Similarly, child labour laws in the country allow children above the age of 14 years to work in non-hazardous industries, which would qualify them to fall under Section 13 of the Bill, which deals with employee data.
A 2019 report suggests that two-thirds of India’s internet users are in the 12–29 years age group, accounting for about 21.5% of the total internet usage in metro cities. With the emergence of cheaper phones equipped with faster processing and low internet data costs, children are no longer passive consumers of the internet. They have social media accounts and use several applications to interact with others and make purchases. There is a need to examine how children and teenagers interact with the internet as well as the practicality of requiring parental consent for the usage of applications.
Reservations about the age of consent under the Bill have also been highlighted by some members of the JPC through their dissenting opinions. MP Ritesh Pandey suggested that the age of consent should be reduced to 14 years keeping the best interest of the children in mind as well as to support children in benefiting from technological advances. Similarly, MP Manish Tiwari in his dissenting opinion suggested regulating data fiduciaries based on the type of content they provide or data they collect.
2. How is the 2021 Bill Different from the 2019 Bill?
The 2019 draft of the Bill consisted of a class of data fiduciaries called guardian data fiduciaries – entities that operate commercial websites or online services directed at children or that process large volumes of children’s personal data. This class of fiduciaries was barred from profiling, tracking, behavioural monitoring, and running targeted advertising directed at children and undertaking any other processing of personal data that can cause significant harm to the child. In the previous draft, such data fiduciaries were not allowed to engage in ‘profiling, tracking, behavioural monitoring of children, or direct targeted advertising at children’. There was also a prohibition on conducting any activities that might significantly harm the child. As per Chapter IV, any violation could attract a penalty of up to INR 15 crore of the worldwide turnover of the data fiduciary for the preceding financial year, whichever is higher. However, this separate class of data fiduciaries do not have any additional responsibilities. It is also unclear as to whether a data fiduciary that does not by definition fall within such a category would be allowed to engage in activities that could cause ‘significant harm’ to children.
The new Bill also does not provide any mechanisms for age verification and only lays down considerations that verification processes should be undertaken. Furthermore, the JPC has suggested that consent options available to the child when they attain the age of majority i.e. 18 years should be included within the rule frame by the Data Protection Authority instead of being an amendment in the Bill.
3. In the Absence of a Guardian Data Fiduciary
The 2018 and 2019 drafts of the PDP Bill consider a child to be any person below the age of 18 years. For a child to access online services, the data fiduciary must first verify the age of the child and obtain consent from their guardian. The Bill does not provide an explicit process for age verification apart from stating that regulations shall be drafted in this regard. The 2019 Bill states that the Data Protection Authority shall specify codes of practice in this matter. Taking best practices into account, there is a need for ‘user-friendly and privacy-protecting age verification techniques’ to encourage safe navigation across the internet. This will require looking at technological developments and different standards worldwide. There is a need to hold companies accountable for the protection of children’s online privacy and the harm that their algorithms cause children and to make sure that they are not continued.
The JPC in the 2021 version of the Bill removed provisions about guardian data fiduciaries, stating that there was no advantage in creating a different class of data fiduciary. As per the JPC, even those data fiduciaries that did not fall within the said classification would also need to comply with rules pertaining to the personal data of children i.e. with Section 16 of the Bill. Section 16 of the Bill requires the data fiduciary to verify the child’s age and obtain consent from the parent/guardian. The manner of age verification has also been spelt out. Furthermore, since ‘significant data fiduciaries’ is an existing class, there is still a need to comply with rules related to data processing. The JPC also removed the phrase “in the best interests of, the child” and “is in the best interests of, the child” under sub-clause 16(1), implying that the entire Bill concerned the rights of the data principal and the use of such terms dilutes the purpose of the legislation and could give way to manipulation by the data fiduciary.
Over the past two years, there has been a significant increase in applications that are targeted at children. There has been a proliferation of EduTech apps, which ideally should have more responsibility as they are processing children's data. We recommend that instead of creating a separate category, such fiduciaries collecting children's data or providing services to children be seen as ‘significant data fiduciaries’ that need to take up additional compliance measures.
Furthermore, any blanket prohibition on tracking children may obstruct safety measures that could be implemented by data fiduciaries. These fears are also increasing in other jurisdictions as there is a likelihood to restrict data fiduciaries from using software that looks out for such as Child Sexual Abuse Material as well as online predatory behaviour. Additionally, concerning the age of consent under the Bill, the JPC could look at international best practices and come up with ways to make sure that children can use the internet and have rights over their data, which would enable them to grow up with more awareness about data protection and privacy. One such example to look at could be the Children's Online Privacy Protection Rule (COPPA) in the US, where the rules apply to operators of websites and online services that collect personal information from kids under 13 or provide services to children that are directed at a general audience, but have actual knowledge that they collect personal information from such children. A form of combination of this system and the significant data fiduciary classification could be one possible way to ensure that children’s data and privacy are preserved online.
The authors are researchers at the Centre for Internet and Society.