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January 24, 2020updated 30 Sep 2022 8:50am

News websites will have to ask readers to declare age or comply with new code, watchdog confirms

By Charlotte Tobitt

News websites will have to ask readers to verify their age or comply with a new 15-point code from the Information Commissioner’s Office designed to protect children’s online data, the watchdog has confirmed.

Press campaign groups were hoping news websites would be exempt from the new Age Appropriate Design Code, which was published in its final form on Wednesday, to protect vital digital advertising revenues.

Applying the code as standard will mean websites putting privacy settings to high and turning off default data profiling, which would impact behavioural advertising (where ads relate to a user’s recent web searches).

If organisations do not want to apply the code as standard, however, they will be forced to bring in a form of age verification.

The ICO had previously said such measures must be “robust” and that simply asking readers to declare their age would not be enough.

But it has now confirmed to Press Gazette that for news websites that adhere to an editorial code, and so conform to established industry guidelines, such “self-declaration” measures are likely to be sufficient.

This could mean news websites asking readers to enter their date of birth or tick a box confirming they are over 18.

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An ICO spokesperson said sites using these methods “might also want to consider some low level technical measures to discourage false declarations of age, but anything more privacy intrusive is unlikely to be appropriate…”.

But Society of Editors executive director Ian Murray predicted the new demands “may prove unpopular even at the simplest level”.

“Asking visitors to confirm their age – even a simple yes or no tick box – could be a barrier to readers, especially children,” he said.

“A complete exemption from this code for the media would have been more appropriate, especially given that there is a great deal of encouragement for young people, including those under 18, to engage with the news.”

The Society of Editors and News Media Association both raised concerns over the draft code last year, warning that age-verification tools would result in a “huge” drop in readers online.

The ICO has said it will work with the news media industry over a 12-month transition period “to enable proportionate and practical measures to be put in place for either scenario”.

The 15-point Age Appropriate Design Code applies to so-called “information society services” likely to be used by children – this includes social media platforms, search engines, apps and streaming services.

The data watchdog produced a separate document alongside the code to explain how it could impact news media, which it said would be allowed to apply the code “in a risk-based and proportionate way”.

The guide states: “We recognise the importance of open access to digital news media, including for children to use it to learn about the world around them.

“The code reflects a risk-based approach. We have acknowledged the general level of risk for this industry and for those who live up to their existing obligations, this will be low.

“Ultimately, the approach that news media services will have to take to establish the age of their users will depend on how their service uses personal data. Online services have a choice.

“The code makes clear that formal age verification will not always be needed to establish age and self-declaration can be used if appropriate to the level of risk.”

The ICO also insisted the code should not stop the media from using personalised advertising as existing data protection legislation already states it should be turned off by default.

“We acknowledge the importance of this revenue stream to the media industry,” the ICO said.

The News Media Association said it would continue to work with the ICO “to ensure that these measures do not unintentionally impact upon press freedom”.

The majority of the UK press is regulated by the Independent Press Standards Organisation. Others are self-regulated, such as The Guardian, while some are members of alternative press regulator Impress.

The code will be sent to Parliament for approval, after which organisations will have 12 months to update their practices before it comes into full effect, which is expected to be in autumn 2021.

Picture: Nicola Giordano/Pixabay 

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