Monday, November 29, 2021

No more anonymity? Age verification is available online.

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.

Nation World News Desk
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