Let’s enforce age rules to keep kids safe on the internet

Peter Steiner’s famous cartoon in The New Yorker about online anonymity – that on the internet no one knows you’re a dog – becomes devastating in the context of children’s digital inscrutability. When no one knows who’s under 13, tweens can compare themselves to influencers on Instagram, 5-year-olds can stream to hundreds of adults on streaming platforms, and kids can stroll through a club of striptease in the metaverse, according to a sinister BBC News investigation published recently. The most popular social media companies, including ByteDance Ltd’s TikTok and Meta Platforms Inc’s Instagram, have a minimum age of 13, but none of them do much to keep children away from their systems beyond that. to ask for a date of birth.

That’s why it’s heartening to see an array of new codes for children proposed by legislators across Europe, Australia and also in the United States, aimed at making the internet safer for children. If they work, online apps will be forced to offer alternative versions for kids.

But the effectiveness of these laws will depend on consistent and accurate recognition of when Internet users are underage, without compromising user privacy. At the moment, the most important proposals impose minimum ages, but unfortunately fail to propose rules on how information must be collected or kept secure.

There are already a myriad of ways to try and verify someone’s age online, ranging from the techy to the scary to the mundane. With facial analysis, for example, algorithms taught using thousands of facial images can estimate a person’s age through the front camera of a phone or computer, usually with an accuracy a year or two. Artificial intelligence could also guess age from someone’s voice, while digital tokens offering proof of age verified by local merchants can be used to access certain websites.

Web platforms can also leverage profiling data based on a person’s online behavior. By the time kids turn 13, advertising and tech companies have already captured about 72 million data points about them, according to a 2017 study by tech privacy firm SuperAwesome Inc. D Other, less technologically sophisticated methods include checking a person’s creditworthiness or age. through their mobile network operator.

Yet as age recognition technology has advanced, information capture policies have not kept pace. One of the risks is that improving technology will also make it easier for companies or even malicious actors to harvest the facial data of thousands of people on the net, including children.

Other proposals seem to have good intentions but lack teeth. Two bodies that oversee international standards for businesses have developed proposals for age verification on the Internet. With catchy names ISO-SC27/WG5 and IEEE-P2089.1, both rules are being reviewed by member countries and could begin adoption within the next 12 to 18 months. But it’s unclear whether the standards will be mandatory, a troubling weak point for any new law to protect children online.

UK lawmaker Beeban Kidron, who was behind legislation known as the Children’s Code that forced several major internet companies including Facebook and TikTok to change their services for children, is now hitting the drum for strict age verification standards. She doesn’t particularly care which technological method works best: “When you set the bar for what something should be, then everyone innovates to meet it,” she said in an interview.

A new UK proposal, the Online Safety Bill, is expected to go to Parliament this year. But so far, the measure does not require companies to meet certain age verification standards.

In the United States, two senators recently proposed the Kids Online Safety Act, modeled on the latest British bill. But the US proposal lacks details on how age screening standards would be enforced, saying only that US regulators should explore technically feasible methods.

As the US and UK debate age verification standards, Germany could be the first to impose them on internet companies. The German government has already approved about 80 different approaches to online age verification and the country’s regulators are more advanced than any others, according to Julie Dawson, policy manager at Yoti Ltd, an age verification company. age based in London. German child protection regulators have also threatened to block one of the world’s largest porn websites due to inadequate age verification.

Standards don’t do much without sanctions. They only really work when governments make them enforceable by regulators. Even the most promising laws aimed at protecting children on the Internet will be ineffective if standards for recognizing children are not strictly set in stone.

Parmy Olson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology.

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