The News Media Association has said a draft code forcing websites to apply child data protections or use “robust” age-verification tools would “undermine the news media industry” unless amended.
Under safeguards put forward in the Age Appropriate Design code of practice, drafted by the Information Commissioner’s Office, simply asking web visitors to say how old they are is not enough.
The code applies to “information society services”, which extends to news websites and social media platforms, and calls for only a minimum amount of personal data to be collected from children.
The aim is to protect children from exploitation by forcing websites to comply with blanket standards on the handling of data for under-18s.
But for news websites it forces them to either reduce the amount of data collected on visitors, which is important for online advertising, or introduce “robust” age checks that put up a barrier to news access.
The NMA, which represents national and regional news organisations in the UK, said it “strongly objects” to what it described as a “startling extension of its regulator remit” and the scope of the draft code.
In its response to a consultation on the code, which closed on 31 May, it said news media publishers and their services should be excluded from the scope of the code, adding: “Newspapers online content, editorial and advertising practices do not present any danger to children”.
The NMA said: “Unless amended, the draft code published for consultation by the ICO would undermine the news media industry, its journalism and business innovation online.
“The ICO draft code would require commercial news media publishers to choose between their online news services being devoid of audience or stripped of advertising, with even editorial content subject to ICO judgment and sanction, irrespective of compliance with general law and codes upheld by the courts and relevant regulators.”
The Society of Editors, whose members include journalists in senior editorial positions, has said the age appropriate code would do “untold harm” to media firms and may force some regional titles to close.
In its response to the consultation on the code, the NMA went on: “Attracting and retaining audience on news websites, digital editions and online service, fostering informed reader relationships, are all vital to the ever evolving development of successful newsbrands and their services, their advertising revenues and their development of subscription or other payment or contribution models, which fund and sustain the independent press and its journalism.
“There is surely no justification for the ICO to attempt by way of a statutory age appropriate design code, to impose access restrictions fettering adults (and children’s) ability to receive and impart information, or in effect impose ‘pre watershed’ broadcast controls upon the content of all currently publicly available, free to use, national, regional and local news websites, already compliant with the general law and editorial and advertising codes of practice upheld by [regulator] the Independent Press Standards Organisation and the Advertising Standards Agency.
“In practice, the draft code would undermine commercial news media publishers’ business models, as audience and advertising would disappear. Adults will be deterred from visiting newspaper websites if they first have to provide age verification details. Traffic and audience will also be reduced if social media and other third parties were deterred from distributing or promoting or linking titles’ lawful, code compliant, content for fear of being accused of promoting content detrimental to some age group in contravention of the code.
“Audience measurement would be difficult. It would devastate advertising, since effective relevant personalised advertising will be rendered impossible, and so destroy the vital commercial revenues which actually fund the independent media, its trusted journalism and enable it to innovate and evolve to serve the ever-changing needs of its audience.
“The draft code’s impact would be hugely damaging to the news industry and wholly counter to the Government’s policy on sustaining high quality, trusted journalism at local, regional, national and international levels.
“Newspapers online content, editorial and advertising practices do not present any danger to children. The ICO has not raised with the industry any evidence of harm, necessitating such drastic restrictions, caused by reading news or service of advertisements where these are compliant with the law and the standards set by specialist media regulators.”
“The NMA and its news media members therefore urge revision of the draft Code stressing the necessity for total exemption for news publishers and also that the Code should make clear that it permits profiling and practices which deliver advertising compliant with the current standards upheld by the Advertising Standard Authority.”