David McCabe, New York Times Company
Richard Errington snapped to stream a sci-fi movie from his UK home last month when YouTube took down the map for him.
The site says Errington, who is over 50, needed to prove he was old enough to watch Space Is a Place, a 1974 film starring jazz musician Sun Ra. He had three options: enter his credit card information, upload a photo ID such as a passport, or skip the video.
“I decided it wasn’t worth the stress,” he said.
In response to growing pressure from activists, parents and regulators who believe technology companies have not done enough to protect children online, businesses and governments around the world are subjecting much of the Internet to stricter digital age checks.
Residents of Japan must provide proof of age in order to use the Tinder dating app. The popular Roblox game requires players to download a government ID form – and a selfie to prove the ID belongs to them – if they want to access the voice chat feature. German and French laws require pornographic sites to check the age of visitors.
Change, which has accelerated over the past two years, could revolutionize one of the main features of the Internet: the ability to remain anonymous. Since the days of dial-up modems and AOL chats, people have been able to browse vast swathes of the network without disclosing any personal information. Many people have created an online image that is completely separate from the offline one.
But the experience of consuming content and communicating online is less and less like an anonymous public platform and more like going to the bank with measures to prove that you are what you call yourself. This month, lawmakers in Washington, DC, which lags behind other global capitals in regulating tech companies, called for new rules to protect young people after a former Facebook employee said the company knew its products were harming some teens. They repeated those calls on Tuesday in a hearing with executives from YouTube, TikTok, and parent company Snapchat.
Critics of age verification say that in the name of people’s safety, they can compromise user privacy, restrict freedom of expression, and harm communities that benefit from online anonymity. Authoritarian governments have used child protection as an argument to curtail free speech on the Internet: This summer, China banned websites from ranking celebrities in popularity as part of a broader crackdown on what it says is the detrimental effect of celebrity culture on young people.
“Are we going to see more age checks? Of course, ”said Hani Farid, professor of engineering and computer science at the University of California, Berkeley, who called for additional safety measures for children. “Because of more pressure, people are now more aware of how these technologies are harming children.”
But regulators and companies need to tread carefully, Farid said. “We don’t want the solution to be more harmful than the problem,” he said.
Many websites have long required visitors to provide their date of birth in order to view adult-only content. But visitors could usually do this without showing any evidence of their age.
For some regulators, this is no longer enough. The new UK child protection regulation says some websites need to take additional steps to verify the age of their users when services collect sensitive user data.
An update to the European Union rules for video and audio services requires sites to protect minors, which may include checking the age of users. In response to this change, Google said last year that it would ask some users of its YouTube for identity documents or credit card information before they could watch adult videos. A Google spokesperson pointed to an August blog post in which the company said it “is looking for ways to develop consistent products and user controls for children and teens around the world,” as regulators apply new rules in different countries.
Facebook is exploring similar options. In July, the company said it is developing programs to look for signs that users are lying about their age, such as when someone claims to be 21, receives messages about their quinceañera. But when “we really feel like we need more information, we design a menu of options for someone to validate their age,” Pavni Divanji, Facebook’s vice president of youth products, said in a post. Later, Facebook said that one option could be the provision of identity documents.
Many of the new age verification attempts require users to provide government ID or credit card information. But other companies are using or considering other options, such as software that scans a user’s face to roughly determine their age.
Review critics fear that this requirement will force users to provide sensitive information to websites with limited resources to prevent hacking. Third party companies offering age verification will also be vulnerable.
“Either way, this is still a treasure trove of data that can be used,” said Daily Barnett, staff technologist for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an online privacy and free speech advocacy group.
Many companies and governments say they are taking steps to address privacy concerns, such as limiting data retention. The UK privacy regulator, overseeing the new child protection code, said this month that websites should only implement the most aggressive age checks – such as requiring government identification – when the potential risk to a child is equally significant.
“In figuring out which age verification method to use, game company Roblox showed prototypes to 10 teenage players,” said Chris Aston Chen, senior product manager at the company.
One possible method required players to participate in a video call while the other checked government databases. Chen said that players gravitated towards using government ID cards, and they trusted this option and found it convenient. (Roblox’s Chief Product Officer is a member of the board of directors of The New York Times Co.)
This technology will also make it easier for Roblox to protect against players it has blocked due to inappropriate behavior in the voice chat function. If these players log in again using a new account, but try to verify their age using the same government document, they will be banned.
“I really envision that there will be an increased level of comfort and expectation over the next few years to provide a kind of personal check on the platform for the greater good,” Chen said.
Some services resist audits. Twitter allows users to provide their date of birth, but does not require it. If users want to view adult content, they must click on the warning, but do not have to prove that they are over 18 years old.
“At the core of Twitter is the belief that public communication is of tremendous value when people can talk to the world under a pseudonym,” said Nick Pickles, senior director of global strategy for public policy on Twitter, “and without demanding a significant amount of personal information before you can use the online services. “
Critics say the transition can be frustrating for some. Posts related to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are more likely to be mistakenly flagged as “adult” content, for example, if they are not sexually explicit, ”Barnett said.
Automatic facial analysis is also often less accurate for feminine or darker-skinned people. Critics fear that strict age verification could make life difficult for people like sex workers and political dissidents who rely on online anonymity.
Perhaps no part of the Internet has stricter age verification requirements than pornographic sites, which are often at the forefront of technology trends. In addition to Germany and France, governments including Poland, the Philippines and Canada have considered proposals that would require age verification pornography sites.
“The Internet was built by adults for adults,” said Julie Inman Grant, head of Australia’s Electronic Security Commissioner and author of age verification guidelines. “And I think one of the key challenges for us is to come up with a system that would prove that a child is a child at a keyboard.”
It’s unclear how internet users will react to the increasingly common age checks.
For months, YouTube has been explaining to frustrated Twitter users that it requires government IDs due to the new regulations.
“I pay for music on YouTube, but he wants me to upload a copy of my ID so he can check my age before he lets me play in color from Nirvana,” one user tweeted. The user noted that he first bought a track on a cassette “when I was about 12 years old, almost 30 years ago.”
“This rule applies to video sharing platforms in some countries,” YouTube customer service responded.
Errington said YouTube asked him for a credit card when he tried to watch Space Is the Place. He doesn’t have it. And he said he was uncomfortable with uploading photo ID.
“I was not ready to provide this information,” he said. “So the Sun Ra video remains a mystery.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.