In the age of a pandemic, digital platforms and social media are fast growing phenomena. The Internet connects over 2.5 billion users worldwide, offering opportunities to young people to connect, communicate, educate, and ultimately expand their horizons. In India, however, several socio-economic disparities along with other divisions, based on gender or race, affect equal access to and safe usage of digital platforms, widening the existing digital divide.
Young people, especially girls, are often made targets of online abuse and harassment. They are also vulnerable online and often discouraged from accessing digital resources. Further, legal restrictions prevent this group in India from safely and independently engaging on online platforms.
Although risks of digital mediums exist, such as cyber bullying, the lack of clear privacy rules, and behavioural addiction, its benefits are far more. Benefits include bridging gaps in communication, promoting civic engagement, and disseminating knowledge.
In the recovery from the pandemic, the Internet also helped classrooms and playgrounds sustain virtually, and became a means through which the child’s education and development continued. Thought provoking examples of effective social media engagement can be: 17-year-old climate change Swedish activist Greta Thunberg mobilising other young people on climate change awareness with the power of social media.
Digital platforms have also become excellent business opportunities for young people. Monetising them for marketing small businesses, blogging or even creating original content is quickly on the rise. Popular creators like Prajakta Koli and Mithila Palkar have built their audience engagement and credibility through platforms before becoming mainstream influencers. The power of the Internet is endless and providing the means for the youth to leverage this can prove to be very useful.
India’s restrictive range of legal frameworks, however, makes it difficult for its youth to access online resources. Unlike global standards, India classifies a child at age 18, and sets that as the bar for independently accessing online forums. India’s draft data privacy law also seeks to introduce age verification and parental consent processes for those under the age of 18. Given that Internet governance is a shared responsibility, it is necessary for private companies to work with the Indian Government to enhance the data privacy and security regulations, and provide structures for the safety of online users, especially the youth.
The Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology (MeitY) provides legal frameworks to mitigate cybercrimes and other forms of online abuses through the Information Technology Act, 2000. Additionally, the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019 seeks to regulate minors’ data. The Bill classifies any person below the age of 18 as a child, requiring their personal data to only be processed with parental consent and their age to be verified. This draft law also restricts any ads targeting or behaviour tracking of minors’ data.
Behaviour tracking helps companies keep their minor users’ experience secure and privacy protective. If companies are unable to continue this practice, it could risk exposing children to harmful content online. A recent example of the harmful unintended consequences of barring behaviour tracking comes from the EU. The EU’s ePrivacy Directive, which took effect on December 21, 2020 resulted in companies disabling automatic routine tools from detecting child abuse online.
Here, the Bill assumes that processing and targeting a child’s data is always going to be for harmful purposes, and the provisions do not consider any other potential uses or benefits of online networks or the Internet.
India does not contextualise legal frameworks of digital safety and child protection with social networks for reform. The Indian Government, unlike its global counterparts, should create avenues to enforce reporting policies and set clear legal consequences for online abuse and harassment. This leads to ambiguity for effectively ensure a consistently safe and regulated environment for users, especially young people.
In the US, for example, social media companies that abide by the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, require users to be at least 13. Verifiable parental consent is needed only for those who are younger. The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation sets the age range between 13 and 16 to maintain tighter privacy rules for children and teens hinged to parental consent. Although the GDPR offers little guidance on what higher standards for children’s data mean in practice, some EU countries have started to design their own protections and enforcement of children’s data rights. Tighter controls have taken place on apps, online games, educational websites, and streaming services that process children’s data in the UK. Brazil’s data protection law, that took effect in August 2020, now provides balanced protections for children’s online privacy.
The definition of a child is varied across Indian laws. For instance, across frameworks like the Indian Penal Code, the Child Marriage and the Restraint Act. The Indian Contract Act, 1872 and the Indian Majority Act,1875, however, specify the age bar of 18 years. This is reflected in the PDP Bill as well.
India’s emerging privacy frameworks are comparatively vague in regard to the age of consent and enforcing digital safety for Internet children. Such restrictions could deprive children from the benefits that the online world provides, if used responsibly.
There is no clear stand on the legal front as to why India sets the age bar at 18, unlike its global counterparts. The ground reality is that children way below the age of 13 are already accessing the Internet, and instead lying about their age just to use online networks. They use it for their schools, connecting with peers, entertainment, and leisure. Safer forums and regulations need to be orchestrated for the privacy and comfort of young users. The privacy for a 13-year-old child is very different from that of a 17-year-old and thus cannot be clubbed in the same category. Instead, considering a wider set of regulations according to various age groups as provisions in legal frameworks around digital safety and privacy is a better alternative.
Factoring in maturity levels of children of different age groups and using a narrower approach that requires mandatory age verification for only those websites that are directed at children or have the actual knowledge that their services will be used by them, like the US legal frameworks would be more ideal. More nuanced factors of maturity, consent and privacy need to be taken into consideration for the Indian PDP Bill and similar frameworks to be more effective and ultimately at par with international standards.
Dr. Ranjana Kumari is the Director of Centre for Social Research as well as Chairperson of Women Power Connect.
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