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Privacy and the online world in 2016

By Geraldine Bedell, Parent Zone editorial director

Our predictions for the hot talking points for 2016 regarding families and the internet

Part 1: privacy

Just before Christmas, the EU passed new regulations concerning online privacy. The text still has to be approved and won’t become official for another couple of years – but the regulations mean, for example, that companies won’t be able to pass on information they’ve collected about users to a third party without the user’s permission. (If, like me, you’re a cynic, expect your Ts&Cs to become even more opaque).

Tucked in among the new regs was one saying that social media sites must increase the age at which young people can access their services without their parents’ permission, from 13 to 16. Cue an outcry from tech companies, alarmed by the costs of policing this (you won’t find them saying so, but they can’t keep under-13s off as it is) and from child protection bodies, worried that young people will be barred from accessing helpful information, for example about sexuality or their rights.

Whether or not you think it’s right that parents should control under-16s’ internet access (and we probably don’t even agree about it in the Parent Zone office, where we think about it all the time) it doesn’t matter in the UK at the moment: the EU responded to the backlash by deciding at the last minute that member states could choose whether to implement this particular rule. The UK has already said it will be sticking with things as they are.

But the row did expose privacy as a raw issue, with many different groups fighting over the rights and wrongs of collecting and passing on users’ (especially children’s) data. Data collection is fundamental to the business model of the internet and it would be idiotic to pretend otherwise. In practice, most of us decide (perhaps after thinking about it carefully, perhaps not) that the benefits of the online services we use are worth giving up our data for.

But things are about to change, literally. We are seeing the beginning of the internet of things, when all sorts of household objects will be able to collect information about us. In 2015 there was an outcry when it was reported that Samsung smart TVs ‘could be spying on their owners’ whose ‘spoken words could be captured and transmitted to a third party.’ I, for one, don’t particularly want my (very) occasional episodes of ratty, bad-tempered parenting reported by my kettle.

Samsung pointed out that the televisions were simply learning from voice commands and, besides, the listening-in option could be turned off – but you can see how this could become an issue for families, opening up an Orwellian prospect of their comings and goings, their fights and makeups, becoming public property.

So, this year, expect lots of debate about blocking software (again). Also, discussion about whether anyone will ever again achieve privacy and anonymity in the world of the internet of things or whether the latest technology will always outsmart us. Plus there will be lots of talk about the need for corporations to become more transparent. Why shouldn’t tech companies tell us who is collecting our data, what they’re interested in, who they’re sharing it with and what are those others doing with it?

What companies do with our data is only one part of the privacy question. There are also new possibilities for hacking. One hacker-group last year arranged for a brand of talking doll to start swearing – which is quite funny unless it happened to be your child’s doll. But what if a much less benign group decided to hack the NHS, or your car when you were on the motorway?

As the Edward Snowden revelations showed, governments can’t be trusted not to snoop on citizens – so while the EU is protecting us from companies, it’s reasonable to ask what new information governments are now able to find out about us.

One way and another, privacy is going to be a major issue of concern for 2016 – and because we find it easier to focus on how these issues relate to children, and because children are a special case, requiring extra protection, much of this will be seen through the prism of the family. The rights of parents, the state and corporations will clash over children’s online lives.


Read part 2: digital literacy here.

Read part 3: young people, mental health and the internet here


Image: Lee Haywood CC BY-SA 2.0