The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has published a set of 15 new standards which it expects online services to meet in order to protect children’s privacy.

The ICO, which is also responsible for enforcing GDPR, said the standards were expected of online services like apps, connected toys, social media platforms, online games, educational websites and streaming services.

It also covers services not specifically designed for, but likely to be accessed by children and which process their data.

The code requires digital services to provide children with a built-in baseline of data protection automatically whenever they download a new app or game or visit a site.

It says that location settings that allow the world to see where a child is should also be switched off by default and data collection and sharing should be minimised.

Elizabeth Denham, Information Commissioner, said: “There are laws to protect children in the real world – film ratings, car seats, age restrictions on drinking and smoking. We need our laws to protect children in the digital world too.

“In an age when children learn how to use an iPad before they ride a bike, it is right that organisations designing and developing online services do so with the best interests of children in mind. Children’s privacy must not be traded in the chase for profit.”

Denham expressed concern that one in five internet users in the UK is a child, but that the internet is not designed for them.

“In a generation from now, we will look back and find it astonishing that online services weren’t always designed with children in mind.”

Denham outlined her vision for the code on the ICO website last year.

The ICO submitted the code to the Secretary of State in November and it must complete a statutory process before it is laid in Parliament for approval.

If approved, organisations will have 12 months to update their practices before the code comes into full effect. The ICO expects this to be by autumn 2021.

Denham continued: “The ICO’s Code of Practice is the first concrete step towards protecting children online. But it’s just part of the solution. We will continue to work with others here in the UK and around the world to ensure that our code complements other measures being developed to address online harms.”

The ICO’s enforcement powers include a fine of up to £17.5m or 4% of worldwide turnover, whichever is higher when firms breach GDPR guidelines.

In the case of breaches involving children, it warned in official papers: “where we see harm or potential harm to children we will likely take more severe action against a company than would be the case for other types of personal data.”

The standards are:

Best interests of the child: The best interests of the child should be a primary consideration when you design and develop online services likely to be accessed by a child.

Data protection impact assessments: Undertake a DPIA to assess and mitigate risks to the rights and freedoms of children who are likely to access your service, which arise from your data processing. Take into account differing ages, capacities and development needs and ensure that your DPIA builds in compliance with this code.

Age appropriate application: Take a risk-based approach to recognising the age of individual users and ensure you effectively apply the standards in this code to child users. Either establish age with a level of certainty that is appropriate to the risks to the rights and freedoms of children that arise from your data processing, or apply the standards in this code to all your users instead.

Transparency: The privacy information you provide to users, and other published terms, policies and community standards, must be concise, prominent and in clear language suited to the age of the child. Provide additional specific ‘bite-sized’ explanations about how you use personal data at the point that use is activated.

Detrimental use of data: Do not use children’s personal data in ways that have been shown to be detrimental to their wellbeing, or that go against industry codes of practice, other regulatory provisions or Government advice.

Policies and community standards: Uphold your own published terms, policies and community standards (including but not limited to privacy policies, age restriction, behaviour rules and content policies).

Default settings: Settings must be ‘high privacy’ by default (unless you can demonstrate a compelling reason for a different default setting, taking account of the best interests of the child).

Data minimisation: Collect and retain only the minimum amount of personal data you need to provide the elements of your service in which a child is actively and knowingly engaged. Give children separate choices over which elements they wish to activate.

Data sharing: Do not disclose children’s data unless you can demonstrate a compelling reason to do so, taking account of the best interests of the child.

Geolocation: Switch geolocation options off by default (unless you can demonstrate a compelling reason for geolocation to be switched on by default, taking account of the best interests of the child). Provide an obvious sign for children when location tracking is active. Options which make a child’s location visible to others must default back to ‘off’ at the end of each session.

Parental controls: If you provide parental controls, give the child age appropriate information about this. If your online service allows a parent or carer to monitor their child’s online activity or track their location, provide an obvious sign to the child when they are being monitored.

Profiling: Switch options which use profiling ‘off’ by default (unless you can demonstrate a compelling reason for profiling to be on by default, taking account of the best interests of the child). Only allow profiling if you have appropriate measures in place to protect the child from any harmful effects (in particular, being fed content that is detrimental to their health or wellbeing).

Nudge techniques: Do not use nudge techniques to lead or encourage children to provide unnecessary personal data or weaken or turn off their privacy protections.

Connected toys and devices: If you provide a connected toy or device ensure you include effective tools to enable conformance to this code.

Online tools: Provide prominent and accessible tools to help children exercise their data protection rights and report concerns.