Tech Platforms Are Struggling to Verify Users’ Age

Social media and streaming platforms are struggling to determine the best ways to verify a user’s age. 

Companies are trying to figure out the best ways to verify a user’s age as parents and lawmakers grow increasingly concerned about the way children and teenagers use online services.

Tech giants are scrambling to update their privacy rules for young users in order to comply with new regulations from the United Kingdom and California focused on teens’ online privacy and well-being.

Historically, when Europe passes new data laws, the U.S. and other Western countries have eventually followed suit. So it’s likely that the U.K.’s pending Age Appropriate Design Code will set a new global standard for the treatment of children’s data.

California’s new law aimed at improving online privacy and safety for children has the industry on edge and critics warning of disruptions to the internet — but advocates say most users won’t see big changes.

Worries and the new laws have pushed companies to try new processes for ensuring underage users aren’t getting onto sites and services meant for older people.

Age verification and age estimation are just one part of an attempt to make tech safer for kids as complaints grow over mental health harms, privacy trespasses, and more.

Platforms are deploying age verification techniques in the absence of uniform laws or broadly accepted guidelines for how to do so without violating privacy or leaving giant loopholes.

Experts say that age verification seems like an easy and reasonable ask, but it is not that simple online as it is in real life. Online, there are no real people checking every ID, and it instead involves a technological intermediary to get a best guess at how old the user is. 

Platforms that seek to boost their user totals have a built-in disincentive to get too rigorous about age verification: More checks mean fewer users for advertisers to reach.

Companies are also concerned about having to take too much data from users to verify age. 

Spurred by existing and potential laws, platforms are taking pains to show they’re being responsible about age-appropriate content on their sites, with varying approaches.

There are no agreed-upon guidelines for the accuracy or protection of civil rights in gauging the ages of online users.

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