Richard Errington clicked to stream a sci-fi movie from his home in Britain last month when YouTube granted him a pass.
The site said Mr Errington, who is over 50, had to prove he was old enough to watch “Space Is the Place,” a 1974 film starring jazz musician Sun Ra. He had three options: enter his credit card information, upload photo ID like a passport, or skip the video.
“I decided it wasn’t worth stressing,” he said.
In response to growing pressure from activists, parents, and regulators who believe tech companies haven’t done enough to protect children online, businesses and governments around the world are subjecting much of the internet to crime. tighter controls in the digital age.
People in Japan must provide a document proving their age to use the Tinder dating app. The popular Roblox game requires players to upload some form of government identification – and a selfie to prove that the identity belongs to them – if they wish to access a voice chat feature. Laws in Germany and France require pornographic sites to verify the age of visitors.
The changes, which have accelerated over the past two years, could upend one of the core features of the internet: the ability to remain anonymous. Since the days of dial-up modems and AOL chat rooms, people could browse huge swathes of the web without disclosing any personal information. Many people have created an online character entirely separate from their offline character.
But the experience of consuming content and communicating online is less and less like an anonymous public place and more like a passage to the bank, with measures to prove that you are who you say you are. This month, Washington lawmakers, which have lagged behind other global capitals in regulating tech companies, called for new rules to protect young people after a former Facebook employee said the he company knew its products were harming some teens. They repeated those calls on Tuesday during a hearing with executives from YouTube, TikTok and Snapchat’s parent company.
Critics of age controls say that in the name of people’s safety, they could endanger user privacy, curb free speech and harm communities that enjoy anonymity online. Authoritarian governments have used child protection as an argument to limit online speech: China this summer banned websites from ranking celebrities by popularity as part of a broader crackdown on what it says are the most popular. pernicious effects of celebrity culture on young people.
“Are we going to start seeing more age verification?” Of course, ”said Hany Farid, professor of engineering and computer science. at the University of California at Berkeley, which called for more safety measures for children. “Because there is more pressure, there is more awareness now, about how these technologies harm children. “
But, said Farid, regulators and businesses need to proceed with caution. “We don’t want the solution to be more harmful than the problem,” he said.
Many websites have a long history of requiring visitors to submit their date of birth to view adult-only content. But visitors could usually do so without showing any proof of their age.
This is no longer sufficient for some regulators. New child protection guidelines in Britain some sites say should take additional steps to verify the age of their users when the services collect sensitive user data.
An update to EU rules for video and audio services requires sites to protect minors, which may include checking ages of users. In response to the change, Google said last year that it would ask certain YouTube users, which it owns, for their IDs or credit card details before they can watch adult-only videos. A Google spokesperson pointed out a August blog post where the company said it “is looking for ways to develop consistent product experiences and user controls for children and teens around the world” as regulators enforce new rules in different countries.
Facebook is exploring similar options. The company said in a July blog post that he was developing programs to look for signs that users were lying about their age, such as spotting when a person claiming to be 21 receives messages on their quinceañera. But when “we think we need more information, we develop a menu of options for someone to prove their age,” Pavni Diwanji, vice president of the company’s youth products, said in the statement. message. Facebook later said one of the options would be to provide identification documents.
Many of the new age verification efforts require users to submit government-issued or credit card credentials. But other companies are using or considering other options, such as software that scans a user’s face to approximate the person’s age.
Control critics fear that the requirement would force users to provide sensitive information to websites with limited resources to prevent hacks. Outside companies that offer age checks would also be vulnerable.
“Either way, it’s still a treasure trove of actionable data,” said Daly Barnett, a technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy and free speech advocacy group in line.
Many businesses and governments say they have measures in place to address privacy concerns, such as limits on how long data is stored. UK privacy regulator overseeing new child protection code said this month that websites should only roll out the most aggressive age controls – like requiring government identification – when the potential risk to a child is just as great.
While sorting out which age verification method to use, Roblox, the games company, showed prototypes to 10 teenage players, said Chris Aston Chen, the company’s senior product manager.
One possible method required players to make a video call, while another checked government databases. Mr. Chen said players were drawn to using government identities, an option they trusted and found practical. (Roblox Product Manager is a board member of the New York Times Company.)
The technology will also make it easier for Roblox to avoid players it has banned due to inappropriate behavior in the voice chat feature. If these players reconnect using a new account but try to verify their age using the same government document, they will be blocked.
“I imagine that over the next few years there will be an increased level of comfort and expectation, almost, to provide some sort of personal verification on a platform for the greater good,” Mr. Chen.
Some services resist controls. Twitter allows users to disclose their date of birth but does not require it. If users want to view adult content – nudity is rife on the service – they have to click a warning but don’t have to prove they’re 18 or older.
“At the heart of Twitter is the belief that there is tremendous value in the public conversation of people who can speak under a pseudonym to the world,” said Nick Pickles, senior director of global public policy strategy at Twitter, “nor does it require a significant amount of personal information to be provided before you can use the online services.
The change could be particularly embarrassing for some people, critics said. Posts related to lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people are more likely to be mistakenly marked as “adult” content even if they are not overtly sexual, for example, said Ms Barnett of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. .
Automatic facial analysis is also often less accurate for female faces or people with darker skin. And critics fear that strict age controls will make life more difficult for people who depend on anonymity online, like sex workers and political dissidents.
Perhaps no part of the web has more age verification requirements than porn sites, which are often on the cutting edge of technological trends. In addition to Germany and France, governments such as Poland, the Philippines and Canada have considered proposals that would require porn sites to verify ages.
“The internet was created by adults, for adults,” said Julie Inman Grant, who heads Australia’s office of the Electronic Security Commissioner and has developed age verification guidelines. “And I think one of the main challenges for us is to come up with a system that proves that a child is a child sitting behind a keyboard.”
It is not known how internet users will react to increasingly common age controls.
For months, YouTube explained to frustrated Twitter users that it was demanding government IDs due to new regulations.
“I pay for youtube music, but he wants me to upload a copy of my ID so he can verify my age before letting me play ‘in bloom’ by Nirvana”, a user said. The user noted that he first purchased the track on tape “when I was about 12 years old, almost 30 years ago”.
“This is a rule applied to video sharing platforms in certain countries,” replied YouTube’s customer support account.
Mr Errington in Britain said YouTube asked him for a credit card when he tried to watch “Space Is the Place”. He does not have it. And he said he felt uncomfortable uploading photo ID.
“I was not ready to give this information,” he said. “So Sun Ra’s video remains a mystery. “