Making Published Terms Age Appropriate: 5Rights is supporting the IEEE to create an international standard

Making Published Terms Age Appropriate
5Rights is supporting the IEEE to create an international standard

Every digital environment a child interacts with has its own published terms, normally consisting of three separate documents: community standards, terms and conditions, and a privacy notice. To date, there has been no standard to guide how published terms should address children and young people or recognise their needs. Until now.

Since November 2019, 5Rights Foundation has been supporting the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Working Group to create standard P2089. The standard will be of use to digital service providers, to measure their own published terms to determine whether or not they are age appropriate.     

Here we discuss the work carried out by the IEEE working group so far and consider the significance of P2089 for upholding children and young people’s rights and anticipating their needs in a digital world. 

Children and young people are angry about terms and conditions

Over several years working with children and young people, 5Rights Foundation has heard time and time again about the inadequacy of terms and conditions and how these result in frustration and a sense of powerlessness.

“I feel like the companies don’t want you to read them. Because mainly when you’re signing up to something you just wanna do it quickly and then get on with whatever you’re doing or use the website that you signed up to. So they make it really long so you don’t want to read it and I feel like … like no one does. And I tried once and it was just … you don’t understand it, it just goes through your head so there’s not much point.” (Youth Jury participant, 2015)

“I’m quite angry about the terms and conditions so I’d also say that, like shorten them and get to the point cos it’s really annoying! And shorten them for kids, cos they don’t know what they are doing. And also stop trying to con people into buying stuff and doing stuff and always throwing adverts at them cos it’s just not enjoyable and it makes the internet not fun.” (Data literacy participant, 2019)

There have also been repeated calls to simplify terms and conditions for children and young people who are routinely forced to navigate overly complex terms and conditions.

Looking for factors that will make a difference

The IEEE working group have been discussing a range of high-level factors that digital services must consider when assessing whether their published terms are ‘age-appropriate’.  These are:

  • Age appropriate presentation
  • Upholding children’s rights
  • Offer fair terms for children and young people
  • Recognises childhood and all children and young people
  • Commercial drivers
  • Platform liability

Each one of these is the subject of intense discussion and debate, engaging with what is at stake for children and young people. The most recent meeting of the IEEE working group focused on ‘age appropriate presentation’ exploring the many knock-on effects that flow from inadequate presentation.

For example, for published terms to be ‘accessible’ they must not only be easily understood but also easy to find. When children, young people or those supporting them do find published terms and are able to understand them, this is only meaningful if platforms actually do what they say. When companies fail to uphold their published terms, tools for reporting this should be easy to use and readily accessible. 

Children repeatedly ask that community rules set out clear expectations and clear consequences of behaviours that do not meet those expectations. A lack of standardisation across many sites has led to a lack of consistency and user expectations. Further still, users are frequently ‘nudged’ via service design that is intended to influence online behaviour, though not always encouraging actions that are in the best interests of children and young people.

It was fantastic to be joined by Jo Pedder, Head of Regulatory Strategy (Domestic), ICO during our latest IEEE working group meeting. Jo provided insights into considerations of ‘nudge’ and ensuring children’s rights are upheld by design and default, which is also foundational to the forthcoming Age Appropriate design Code.  

Why age appropriate published terms matter

With over one billion children and young people online, it is clear that their ability to meaningfully consent or for parents, carers, and teachers to adequately support children is hindered in a digital world full of incomprehensible terms. 

The context of the COVID-19 pandemic, brings a new level of urgency to IEEE’s P2089 standard. Since the introduction of unprecedented social distancing measures, there has been a global surge in the number of children and young people using digital technologies. More than ever, technology mediates almost every aspect of children and young people’s lives. But the digital world was never imagined as an environment where childhood would take place, and it was not designed with children and young people in mind. COVID-19 has underlined perhaps more clearly than ever why the digital world should be age-appropriate by design and default. The collective work to achieve a standard for age appropriate terms in P2089 moves us ever closer to a digital world that children and young people have long waited for.