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Navigating the complexities of online child safety and the role of tech companies

Exploring the challenges of age assurance regulation
Navigating the complexities of online child safety and the role of tech companies
 

By Lina Ghazal, Head of Regulatory and Public Affairs, VerifyMy

Children today are spending an unprecedented number of hours online. With a new child going online for the first time every half second worldwide, the latest reports reveal that children aged 8 to 18 spend an average of 7.5 hours per day in front of a screen.

When used properly, the internet can enhance kids’ knowledge, stimulate their imagination, and foster social connections. It holds the potential to expand their perspectives and spark their creativity. However, it also poses serious risks. Children are consistently encountering harmful, age-restricted, and even illegal content online. Alarmingly, nearly one in ten (9 percent) of young people aged 16 to 19 have come across Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM) on the internet.

The path to protecting children online is increasingly complex, especially in the U.S. The enactment of a federal law addressing this issue has been hindered by ongoing debates between regulators and other parties concerned about potential restrictions on freedom of speech and access to information. Further complicating the situation, several states have passed their own, distinct online child protection laws, making compliance with all of them difficult to achieve.

Striking the right balance

The UK’s recent online safety regulations demonstrate that it is possible to strike a balance between preserving freedom of speech and safeguarding children online. Key to achieving that balance is the clear definition of various types of inappropriate online content, and assessing what types of content are available online and the associated risks that children may encounter when exposed to them.

Proportionality is another crucial aspect to consider. Essentially, this means tailoring the level of intervention to match the specific harm we aim to mitigate while minimizing any collateral impact. In this instance, UK regulation outlines a risk and standards-based approach to age verification. This approach requires online platforms to declare the types of content they offer, their prevalence, and who can access them. By considering these nuances, various age assurance measures can be implemented to decrease the chances of children encountering inappropriate materials.

The potential impact of KOSA

Despite the continuing disagreements among experts, legislators, and advocates over how to keep children safe online, there is a shared understanding of the importance of holding online platforms accountable, particularly for preventing kids’ access to harmful content. This consensus is evident in the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA), a bill first introduced in 2022 aimed at safeguarding children on the internet. Although the bill has not yet been passed, the industry is already contemplating its potential implications, both nationally and internationally, as other countries will likely consider the US as a model for developing their own regulations in this area.

If KOSA is approved by both the Senate and House and subsequently becomes law, questions regarding its implementation and enforcement will still remain. As evidenced by the experiences in the UK and EU, establishing compliance programs and detailed standards can be a lengthy process, taking several years to fully implement.

Tech companies’ role in ensuring child safety

That being said, it is clear that regulation regarding this issue will arrive sooner rather than later. Now is the time for tech companies to take the initiative and proactively establish rules and tools that preserve a secure online environment. This involves evaluating their own risk levels and implementing measures to guarantee compliance with upcoming legislation.

Advancements in technology, such as artificial intelligence (AI), have simplified and streamlined the process of determining users’ ages. A variety of age assurance methods, including email address age estimation, are now accessible, offering online platforms the means to assess their customers’ ages with minimal disruption.

Technology companies have the potential to do more than just comply with regulations; they can actively contribute to making the internet a safer space for children. By partnering with NGOs for educational and awareness initiatives, they can demonstrate their commitment to online safety. Moreover, they can collaborate with one another to support government-enforced regulations, for instance, by refining and enhancing guiding principles and best practices.

The power of collaboration and innovation

With it becoming increasingly easy for children to access age-restricted content, the need for regulators to establish and enforce legislation that safeguards children and society online has become paramount. Such regulation though must be fair, equitably enforced, and commercially viable. Businesses must act quickly, ensuring they have the necessary tools and systems in place to contribute to this crucial effort.

Significant progress has been made in recent years, as we find ourselves in a better position now than we were five years ago. Although the journey towards a safer online environment for children has been slow, we are steadily making headway. The goal is to establish a harmonized approach that all stakeholders can agree upon.

However, there is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to protecting children online. It is essential to be pragmatic and continuously evaluate the effectiveness of various regulations.

Experts, legislators, and advocates share the same objective of creating a secure online space for children. While the path to achieving this goal may sometimes diverge, it is crucial to maintain an open dialogue and collaborate to develop the most effective strategies. Through information-sharing, joint research initiatives, and the development of industry-wide best practices, tech companies can also play a central role in protecting children online. Ultimately, it is through this collaborative spirit and dedication to innovation that we can continue to make strides in ensuring a secure and nurturing online experience for children everywhere.

About the author

Lina is a Trust & Safety professional with over a decade of experience in media and tech, both in the public (Ofcom) and private (TF1, Meta) sectors. She’s currently leading regulatory and public affairs for safety tech provider VerifyMy.

Lina is an expert in building large-scale policy initiatives and partnerships and has led engagements about online regulation with diverse groups of stakeholders and regulators across Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and the US.

Lina studied Law, Economics, and Management at Ecole Normale Superieure and Queen Mary University of London. She holds a Master of Finance & Corporate Strategy from Sciences Po Paris.

DISCLAIMER: Biometric Update’s Industry Insights are submitted content. The views expressed in this post are that of the author, and don’t necessarily reflect the views of Biometric Update.

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