The other day, I again came across the squirmish video of a preteen screaming while getting an injection. The child is seen utterly scared in some health center, trying to calm his nerves with whatever coping he has, and someone has made his video and uploaded it on social media, for laughs. Pretty surely, the joke that he has been made into has none of his consent. The mocks that he would perhaps be part of, for eternal times to come, till the video stays on the networks, may torment him, but he would never be able to do anything about it.
That is the scariest reality of our digitized lives and children are the most vulnerable, their lives and privacy being constantly intruded into by unabashed cameras. There is no law or authority that controls the content related to children and the consent their legal guardians must have provided. In addition, children are spending an increasing amount of time on the internet. They tend to disclose their personal details – name, age, images, videos, location, address, likes, dislikes, profiles, family data and much more to the sites and users. Given their age, they cannot be expected to have the right to consent and have very poor understanding of risks of disclosing such data. An increasing number of children have been found to be targets of inappropriate content, unsuspected profiling and even bullying.
Due to the changing scenario, children are more exposed to online content than ever before. Not only have the smart devices that a family has access to proliferated and internet access increased, the internet has become part of life of children, students and even those who are out of schools. From online education, social media sharing, to entertainment, digital footprints of children are found on everything, discreetly or indiscreetly.
Lately, there have been a lot of discussions and debates surrounding data privacy and protection of children. In February this year, the Government of India released the Draft Information Technology Rules 2021. However, this Rule is silent on the protection of data pertaining to children. The Personal Data Protection Bill 2019, yet to be enacted and implemented, is the first to talk about personal data and proposes creating a Data Protection Authority in India. However, the Bill has been criticized for lack of differentiation of ages of children and how privacy could mean different things to different people. The draft law demands that Data Harvesters verify the age of children and take the consent of the parents and guardians before the data is processed.
However, given the access the children have to the devices of their parents, no holds barred, including their social media accounts, this Bill is just another failure in making till more is brought into its ambit. The concept of Gatekeeping and Internet being a No Man’s Territory are opposite ones. While many have been advocating freedom of expression and choice, and criticizing the “interference” in enjoying the democracy of content brought in by the internet and social media, many are skeptical. Children, unlike adults, cannot be held accountable, nor responsible for what they see, what they consume, what they post and what they get posted as. “Consent” is an important word and needs to be underlined in Education. It is the responsibility of the parents, teachers, child rights organizations and Governments. The age of consent for internet and online content and data can go to debate rooms.
Online platforms such as Tik-Tok and its clone, Instagram, Facebook, SnapChat and the new-age fetish of being “Youtubers” among the young generation need to be talked about in classrooms. It needs to be part of education, curriculum and upbringing – ensuring safety of children while being on the Internet. The online games and the platform sharing also expose children to unseen but real monsters out there. It is the job of the entire society to protect the young ones’ lives being consumed by content and fiduciaries that are lax about child safety.
India is far from putting in a mechanism to Gate keep content meaningfully. The fact that the USA slapped Youtube with a fine of 170 million dollars in the recent past for illegally collecting children’s data without parental consent was possible due to its Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). The neighbor China has also instituted its “Cyber Protection of Children’s Personal Information” for the protection of the children.
The Cyber cells in states and UTs, including that in J&K have their focus on crimes committed rather than crime protection. Perhaps it would be immature to expect these bodies to act in anticipation given that much of the acts that threaten the privacy and data of children are yet to qualify as crimes. However, the start can be made in our schools and in our education system. Moral Education needs to evolve, much for adults who share content without a thought for its ramifications on the lives of those involved.