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US plays catch-up with online protections, UK mulls another leap

US plays catch-up with online protections, UK mulls another leap

Online privacy for children looks like it should be strengthened in the U.S. at a federal level, and sooner in California. Yet the country leading the way in these areas, the UK, could be about to take a giant leap into online harm reduction, veering away from GDPR and its cousins.

Federal: Biden calls for greater child protections online for first time

U.S. President Joe Biden requested that Congress strengthen privacy rules to protect children online, as part of his first State of the Union address. The White House plans to make specific funding requests to study and improve online safety for children, reports The Verge.

“It’s time to strengthen privacy protections, ban targeted advertising to children, demand tech companies stop collecting personal data on our children,” Biden is quoted as saying, as well as pressuring social media companies to design their products with child safety built in. This would follow the UK’s Age-Appropriate Design Code.

Biden’s remarks follow the revelations of Facebook whistle-blower Frances Haugen who told congressional committees of how Meta Platforms turns a blind eye to the safety of young users. Haugen attended the address as a guest of First Lady Jill Biden, notes The Verge.

The president’s wishes also follow bipartisan senators’ unveiling of a new bill to give parents more control over their children’s online lives, reports The Washington Post. In mid-February, Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), presented the Kids Online Safety Act.

Unlike the existing online child protection regulation which predates companies such as Meta and YouTube and only covers those up to the age of 13, this would require online platforms to provide parents and children younger than 16 with “easy-to-use” tools to keep them safe, limit screen time and protect their data, states The Post.

Companies would have to offer parents and minors tools to modify tech companies’ recommendation algorithms so that they can limit or ban certain content.

State: California bill follows UK code to protect children online

While at a federal level the U.S. is moving toward stricter measures for safeguarding children online, California looks as though it will get there first. Its lawmakers introduced a new bill, the California Age-Appropriate Design Code Act, modelled on the UK’s Children’s Code, reports The Financial Times.

If passed, the bill would require tech platforms to limit the amount of data they collect from and the location tracking of young people in the state.

It would restrict the profiling of children for targeted advertising, ban nudges and bring in age-appropriate content policies. Also proposed by bipartisan lawmakers, Buffy Wicks (D) and Jordan Cunningham (R), it comes as tech firms both move to roll out everywhere the products that match the highest common denominator, but also to push back against the formulation of regulation via lobbying.

“It’ll be a first-in-the-nation bill,” Buffy Wicks, California assemblywoman and co-author of the bill, told the FT, and who believes the UK code is a “proven concept.” “Given the size and scope of California and you have a lot of these companies based in California … we have the ability to have a ripple effect,” she told the British newspaper.

The California Code is sponsored by the 5Rights Foundation. Its Chair is Baroness Beeban Kidron who was the architect of the UK’s Children’s Code (of Age-Appropriate Design Code). In a post on the foundation’s site, she congratulated the California assembly members and said, “The Code’s introduction in the UK has already led to tangible changes to children’s experiences online. These changes should be enforceable around the world, and adoption by the Californian legislature would be a giant step towards building a safer and more equitable digital world for children.”

“As a legislator, I’m honored to introduce this bill — and as a mom, I see it as a necessity,” Wicks told the 5Rights Foundation, “Like so many other parents, I grapple with how challenging it is to protect our kids from the harmful content and experiences they’ll encounter online. Today, that starts to change — with this bill, California has the opportunity to lead the way in making the digital world safer for all American children, giving our kids the highest level of protection possible in the online world.”

Robin Tombs, the co-founder and CEO of London-based digital identity verification company Yoti which supports such moves and provides technical means such as biometrics-based age estimation to assess user age, took to LinkedIn to comment on the move in California.

“Make no mistake, following on from the Age Appropriate Design Code in the UK, in the next 3 years, a growing number of state and country legislators and regulators will require online content providers in many sectors to introduce effective protections for children. The impact of California joining this group will be highly impactful,” posted the CEO.

UK considers next step, may demand tech firms block ‘legal but harmful’ posts

The UK’s world-leading Online Safety Bill is to go before Parliament soon. In the meantime, the Home Secretary Priti Patel and Culture Secretary Nadine Dories have been seeking changes to the bill to add the requirement for internet firms to monitor for “legal but harmful” user content, reports the FT.

The Online Safety Bill is already pioneering by making UK-based representatives of tech firms liable for their firms’ failings. The additions to the bill could require proactive monitoring of content rather than relying on platform users to report material.

A tech executive who has seen the proposals told the FT that monitoring legal as well as clearly illegal content is a significant departure for the tech sector. Another executive said that the move feels more akin to practices in China than democracies.

Age verification requirements in Germany blocks porn on Twitter

Profiles of adult content creators have been blocked on Twitter in Germany since as early as late 2020 following legal orders from German regulators, reports Wired.

The regulators ruled that online pornography should not be visible to children and so far at least 60 accounts have been blocked. Users attempting to see the profile see instead a “withheld” message.

As Twitter itself does not have an age-verification system in place, it appears to have blocked each profile for all users in Germany on the basis of legal demands, according to Wired. There is no way for the over-18s to see the content.

Research cited found that a majority of 16- and 17-year-olds have seen porn on social media, which could have prompted authorities to take legal action.

Children in China find ways around facial recognition to keep playing games

Chinese children are managing to circumnavigate government restrictions brought in last August to curb playing time. They are so effective that rather than contracting, China’s gaming sector revenues are growing, reports ANI News.

Players need to use real-name registration to access games and some have added facial recognition steps to override daily time caps.

Children seem to just use their parents’ information to login, and then research online for more creative ways.

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