Blog Post

October 5, 2022

Protecting child privacy online: Challenges and opportunities for platforms

A year after coming into force, the UK Age Assurance Design Code (AADC) is transforming how online service providers protect children’s data on their platforms. PUBLIC has been working with Privately, a leading age assurance technology provider, to explore how we can help platforms more easily comply with the code. In this blog, we share our views on the challenges to AADC compliance based on recent user research with online platforms and regulators.

The Children’s Code in Context

Concerns over the data privacy of children have generated a recent wave of regulatory activity, not only in the UK but also around the world. In Ireland, the Data Protection Commissioner (DPC) recently fined Instagram €405m for violating children's privacy. In the US, the California Age Appropriate Design Code was passed in August 2022, which means not only the services targeting children under the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) but also all the online services including those with significant amounts of children accessing or features that are known to be of interest to children are mandated to safeguard and process children’s data appropriately. 

In the UK, the Age Assurance Design Code (AADC) - also known as the Children’s Code - came into force in September 2021, regulated by the UK’s data protection watchdog, the ICO. This marked an important step forward in protecting young people online. The AADC sets out 15 standards of age appropriate design for online services, which centre on: 

  • Understanding the age range of users, which is fundamental to the concept of ‘age-appropriate design’ and the ultimate aim of meeting the needs of children’s development, through appropriate methods, such as using third-party age verification services, and account holder confirmation;
  • Undertaking a Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA) to document, assess and report compliance with the AADC and potential risks to regulators;
  • Implementing technical and governance changes such as ensuring ‘privacy by default’, and switching off user profiling and geolocation services, to guarantee the best interests of the child in all aspects of the design of online services.

A year into the implementation, the ICO is beginning to take enforcement action. Whilst four Big Tech firms may face prosecution for breaching the children’s code, various challenges also confront small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in complying with the code. For instance, they fear a significant budgetary overhead and Governance, Risk & Compliance (GRC) burden. Their concerns are exacerbated by the uncertainty and lack of clarity on the requirements for in-scope online services to meet in practice.

At PUBLIC, we have accumulated deep expertise in child safety and ‘Safety by Design’ advising the UK government, regulators and civil society organisations in recent projects. In summer 2022, PUBLIC worked with Privately - a leading privacy-preserving age assurance technology provider and member of our GovStart 2022 cohort, to understand pain points in complying with the AADC and explore a more seamless solution. This blog reflects the latest insights on the compliance challenges that SME service providers face, and the solutions that might resolve these.

Key Findings

Through a combination of desk research and user interviews with a range of online gaming and video sharing platform providers over 8 weeks, we have identified three key areas of challenges for AADC compliance:

  • A lack of clarity from SMEs around the online services in scope of the AADC
  • Technical and business barriers to SME compliance
  • Challenges for regulators in ensuring compliance

Lack of clarity around in-scope online services

Identifying the scope of online services that shall comply with the AADC is not straightforward. Despite the ICO’s guidance, online service providers have different interpretations of what ‘likely to be accessed by children’ means in practice. The perceived excessive administrative burden and limited budgets mean that small and medium-sized online service providers are hesitant to take on compliance duties. This prompts the question of whether self-declaration - currently the most common approach - is sufficient for age-gating. With the ICO’s recent statement that ‘adult-only services are in scope of the Children’s code if they are likely to be accessed by children’, it is worth exploring how to integrate age assurance measures into online services in a scalable way.

Technical and Business Challenges to SME compliance

Although recognising the need for a compliance solution, small and medium-sized companies with child users are taking a ‘wait-and-see attitude’ to take active measures to comply with the AADC. 

We heard from gaming and video sharing platform providers that:

  • Platforms typically take child privacy and online safety seriously and recognise the importance of AADC compliance, not simply in order to fulfil their legal obligations but also to adopt a best practice approach.
  • However, age verification can be difficult without standardised IDs, in particular ‘children often lack identification in many countries.’ 
  • SMEs in particular struggle with identifying best practice approaches to compliance, such as integrating age assurance mechanisms into services’ onboarding process.
  • Retrofitting AADC-compliant workflows into existing platforms is technically challenging, demanding significant resources. Further, there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach since the platform workflows are often highly bespoke and tailored to specific services and use cases.
  • SMEs also perceive a huge GRC burden and don’t want to be a first mover. Given very small teams, limited budgets and focus on financial survival, AADC compliance has not been a top priority.

Challenges for regulators in ensuring compliance

The ICO faces the challenge of ensuring that AADC enforcement is appropriate and scalable. Therefore, regulatory enforcement action must strike the balance between putting sufficient pressure on regulated providers to comply, whilst ensuring the approach is fit-for-purpose with SMEs. In addition, the ICO will likely need to consider their regulatory capacity given the high amount of online services that would be considered ‘likely to be accessed by children.’

The Opportunities

Age assurance 

Age assurance is growing in importance and is central to helping work through these challenges. Some industry players expressed interest in a proportionate solution that combines Know Your Customer (KYC) checks through age assurance technology and a simple, standard compliance template. With age assurance technologies becoming more mature, and improving in accuracy whilst ensuring minimal personal data collection, online services could lean on third-party solutions to fulfil their obligations to protect young people online.

International regulatory collaboration

Our research highlighted an overlapping regulatory landscape between the UK, US (COPPA, California AADC), and Europe (GDPR) in child data protection. At the same time, online gaming and video sharing services can be accessed by child users across the globe with relative ease. Therefore, businesses operating in the UK with an international user base are now looking to expand from COPPA-compliant to AADC-compliant, and will need support to do so. We believe it is critical to long-term success of regulation that international regulators explore collaboration around multilateral enforcement and information sharing. 

Get in Touch

If you are an online service provider exploring AADC compliance and how to build a safe, age-appropriate online environment for children, get in touch with and to find out how we can help.


No items found.
Photo by the author

Zixuan Fu

Senior Associate

Photo by the author

Daniel Fitter

Director of Strategy & Transformation

Explore more insights

Stay in the loop!

Sign up to our monthly newsletter to get a snapshot of PUBLIC’s impact across the public sector, thought-leadership from our experts, and opportunities to get involved!