The question of age verification on the Internet has always been fraught. Every now and then, a usually well-intentioned politician sees requiring age checks as a straightforward policy victory only to realize later not nearly enough consideration had been given to how a practical system would truly work.
Privacy advocates argue users should not need to confirm their age and identity to use apps or browse the Web, even when (or especially when) they are looking for sexual or other content they would like to keep secret. Handing over credit card information, even if there is no charge, comes with obvious security and privacy implications. Another option, such as verifying users by having them upload a government ID, is even worse — not to mention exclusionary. Newer efforts to use computer camera technology to estimate a person’s age show promise, but I would not blame any user for not trusting such a process.
However, that does not mean everyone should just throw their hands up in frustration. Options are not lacking to protect children — we just need to recognize the right ones when we see them. Meta Platforms Inc’s call for federal regulation to add an age verification process to popular app stores is one such example. The Facebook and Instagram owner — which already goes to considerable (if partly futile) efforts to restrict young users on its platforms and keep those younger than 13 off its main apps — is arguing for Apple and Google to always obtain a parent’s approval whenever a child younger than 16 tries to download an app from their stores. Both companies already offer opt-in features to require parental approval for app downloads and purchases, but Meta wants it to be the default, enforced by law.
“This way parents can oversee and approve their teen’s online activity in one place,” wrote Antigone Davis, Meta’s global head of safety. “They can ensure their teens are not accessing adult content or apps, or apps they just don’t want their teens to use. And where apps like ours offer age-appropriate features and settings, parents can help ensure their teens use them.”
This is a technically feasible, light-touch approach that does not intrude on a teenager’s right to be a teen. It does not give parents access to everything their child does in the app, but they do get sufficient visibility into the digital places they are spending their time. Like setting boundaries for where a child can go and play outside in the physical world, this simple measure would help keep children away from the busy roads and dangerous rivers of the Internet.
What it would not do is to prevent minors from using Web browsers, rather than apps, to access inappropriate sites. Indeed, apps that are specifically does not begin and end with naked flesh. It is YouTube videos that contain hateful content; Discord channels that might involve unsuitable conversations or material; bullying and harassment on Instagram. A parent knowing what apps a child has is at the very least a conversation starter. As Davis wrote, parents will have a different opinion, as is their right, about the right age for their children to have access to certain technologies.
In pushing for a law, Meta has something to gain, of course. It is trying to avoid the complexity of dealing with a patchwork of laws across several states. Meta is right to stress that these different approaches mean children are protected inconsistently, and the measures often rely on sites using a hodgepodge of third-party verification services. In Texas, a federal judge blocked an age verification law, saying it contravened the First Amendment. A judge in Arkansas echoed the same about a similar law in that state. Meta’s understandable desire for simplicity in enforcement comes at no cost to the rights of users.
Encouragingly, there is a bipartisan bill on child protection online calling for a feasibility study into how age verification might be handled at the device or operating system level, as Meta is suggesting, though some civil liberties groups have broader concerns about the bill.
Making the app stores function as a centralized age verification mechanism reduces the risk of highly personal data being widely disseminated among several entities responsible for verifying ages on behalf of each and every app. Give those details once to either Apple or Google — something you have likely already done — and you are good to go. (Apple declined to comment on Meta’s blog post; Google did not respond to requests for comment.)
Critics of Meta might at this point scoff at the company positioning itself as some kind of champion of child protection. Its blog post comes just days after a former employee testified to the Senate that Facebook ignored repeated warnings on harassment of teens through the app. Along with other leading apps, Meta faces hundreds of lawsuits that contend its apps are intentionally addictive to young people.
Those criticisms deserve to be heard, but can be treated separately. Protecting young people on the Internet will always be a delicate balancing process: The rights of parents to protect their children, the rights of teens to have their own private spaces, and the rights of everyone to use the Internet freely and without any greater erosion of privacy than has already happened. It is complicated, but when one obvious step can be taken — one with, as far as I can see, no negative consequences — we should not hesitate to take it.
Dave Lee is Bloomberg Opinion’s US technology columnist. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) has a good reason to avoid a split vote against the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in next month’s presidential election. It has been here before and last time things did not go well. Taiwan had its second direct presidential election in 2000 and the nation’s first ever transition of political power, with the KMT in opposition for the first time. Former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) was ushered in with less than 40 percent of the vote, only marginally ahead of James Soong (宋楚瑜), the candidate of the then-newly formed People First Party (PFP), who got almost 37
The three teams running in January’s presidential election were finally settled on Friday last week, but as the official race started, the vice-presidential candidates of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) have attracted more of the spotlight than the presidential candidates in the first week. After the two parties’ anticipated “blue-white alliance” dramatically broke up on the eve of the registration deadline, the KMT’s candidate, New Taipei City Mayor Hou You-yi (侯友宜), the next day announced Broadcasting Corp of China chairman Jaw Shaw-kong (趙少康) as his running mate, while TPP Chairman and presidential candidate Ko Wen-je
On Tuesday, Taiwan’s TAIEX stock index peaked at 17,360 points and closed at 17,341 points, surpassing Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Index, which fell to 17,303 points and closed at 17,541 points. A few years ago, the gap between the Taiwanese and Hong Kong stock indices was more than 20,000 points, but this was before the 2019 anti-extradition protests. Hong Kong is one of the world’s most important financial centers, but many Chinese Internet users joke that it is only a ruin today. When asked by a legislative councilor whether he would communicate with social media platforms in the mainland to request
Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) presidential candidate and New Taipei City Mayor Hou You-yi (侯友宜) has called on his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) counterpart, William Lai (賴清德), to abandon his party’s Taiwanese independence platform. Hou’s remarks follow an article published in the Nov. 30 issue of Foreign Affairs by three US-China relations academics: Bonnie Glaser, Jessica Chen Weiss and Thomas Christensen. They suggested that the US emphasize opposition to any unilateral changes in the “status quo” across the Taiwan Strait, and that if Lai wins the election, he should consider freezing the Taiwanese independence clause. The concept of de jure independence was first