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Age verification and digital wallets for minors: EU launches strategy for online child safety

Age verification and digital wallets for minors: EU launches strategy for online child safety

The European Union has devised a new strategy to help protect its children online as more protective technologies become available and as children’s online interaction becomes lengthier and increasingly inhospitable. Age verification technologies, age-appropriate design and the possibilities for member states to include children in their digital identity and digital wallet schemes are part of the plan which kicks off a decade of initiatives to improve online child safety.

Not to be confused with 2012’s Better Internet for Children initiative, the new Better Internet for Kids (BIK+) strategy hopes to tackle the deteriorating online experience for children as they spend an increasing portion of their lives there.

A snapshot of life online for children

Despite some of the successes of the 2012 plan, the figures prompting the reboot reveal the challenges. In Europe, 54 percent of nine- to 16-year-olds visit social networking sites daily or more often. Eight percent of European children aged 15 are “digitally unconfident.”

Children’s time spent online almost doubled between 2010 and 2020 in many countries and a majority of children use their smartphones daily or “almost all the time.”

Globally, a third of children report having been the victim of online bullying, the number of online images of suspected child abuse processed worldwide almost doubled between 2017 and 2019 and worsened further during the pandemic.

What a safer online experience means

BIK+ is the digital arm of the wide-ranging EU Strategy on the Rights of the Child (RoC) begun in 2021. Adopted on 11 May 2022, BIK+ aims to improve age-appropriate digital services towards three main goals.

Overall, a safe digital environment to protect children from harmful and illegal content; giving children the necessary skills to make safe choices and express themselves online and to improve children’s active participation, essentially to give them more of a voice. In this regard, there will be a child-led review of BIK+ every two years.

Technology will play a clear role in the first aim – a safer environment – but children must also have the skills to understand it, an area where age-appropriate design comes to the fore.

The strategy is intended to inform policy development across member states and bring in a pan-European hotline (‘116 111’) for children to call with any concerns online.

Age verification, digital ID, age-appropriate design, euCONSENT: the growing EU toolbox

In April 2022, the European Parliament and member states reached political agreement on the EU’s Digital Services Act (DSA). The act, likely to be adopted in January 2024, harmonizes ways to control online platforms to tackle harmful and illegal content.

“The Commission will facilitate a comprehensive EU code of conduct on age-appropriate design, building on the new rules in the DSA and in line with the AVMSD [Audiovisual Media Services Directive] and GDPR,” states the text (emphasis in the original), describing a mechanism similar to the UK’s recent Children’s Code. “The code aims to ensure the privacy, safety and security of children when using digital products and services. This process will involve industry, policymakers, civil society and children.”

The text for BIK+ sets out its intent for technology to protect children online:

“Building on ongoing work and taking account of the new DSA rules for online platforms, the Commission will support methods to prove age in a privacy-preserving and secure manner, to be recognised EU-wide. The Commission will work with Member States (who in line with national legislation can choose to issue electronic IDs to the under-18s under the recent proposal on a European Digital Identity), relevant stakeholders and European standardisation organisations to strengthen effective age verification methods, as a priority. This work will encourage market solutions through a robust framework of certification and interoperability.”

“There is a pattern of a number of pieces of legislation having an implicit or explicit requirement for age checking solutions,” Yoti Director of Regulatory and Policy Julie Dawson told Biometric Update in an email. “Companies like Yoti are scanning the legislative developments globally and designing regtech solutions to meet these developing regulations; providing a wide range of age assurance options for organisations and choice for consumers. It’s a good thing, that a healthy ecosystem of solutions are now available and operational at scale and international standards for age assurance are also developing.”

The “ongoing work” refers to the euCONSENT project for browser-based interoperable age verification in Europe.

“euCONSENT already makes use the of the existing centralized eIDAS to verify a user’s age, through the Belgian eIDAS provider, itsme.  eIDAS 2.0, which is a digital wallet, will hopefully be more widely adopted across the EU, and extend this opportunity to more citizens,” explains Iain Corby, executive director of the Age Verification Providers Association (AVPA), and project manager of euCONSENT in an email to Biometric Update on the interplay between the various projects and BIK+.

euCONSENT handles many other methods of age verification for those who either do not have access to eIDAS or prefer not to use a governmental system for online age checks, says Corby, such as those based on biometrics.

“For example, AI-based estimation techniques such as facial image analysis are highly inclusive, particularly for those without access to physical or digital government-issued identity documents, and do not require users to share sensitive personal data.”

euCONSENT is developing its approach for a better experience for all, including children.

“The focus of the solution developed by euCONSENT is on how, having established a user’s age, we can anonymously confirm to online services whether that customer meets their age-restriction criteria without a highly disruptive impact on the user’s online experience.

“That requires a further layer on top of eIDAS. Similarly, for younger children, euCONSENT is streamlining the process of requesting parental consent, and improving the rigour of that by establishing that there is a legal relationship between the child and the adult they nominate.”

Updates on this element of age verification will be available at the euCONSENT conference in Athens and online, 25 May 2022.


This post was updated at 5:19pm Eastern on May 15, 2022 to include comment from Yoti. 

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