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UK Peers slam Ofcom refusal to require biometric age estimation for under-13s

UK Peers slam Ofcom refusal to require biometric age estimation for under-13s

Ofcom’s draft Children’s Safety Code of Practice will leave millions of young people exposed to online harms the legislation behind the code was intended to address, stakeholders say.

A letter addressed to Ofcom by eight peers, including online safety advocate Baroness Beeban Kidron, a former culture secretary and a former health minister, warns that a failure to use the regulatory powers it has been given by parliament will undermine faith in that regulation. Ofcom’s own figures put the number of children in the UK between 8 and 11 years old using social media at around 1.6 million.

The letter, seen and reported by The Telegraph, suggests that Ofcom should be forcing online platforms to use tools like biometric age estimation to keep children away from harmful material.

Biometric facial age estimation is among the “highly effective” age checks Ofcom says social media and other service providers should use, but the media watchdog argues that it should be used to separate children from adults, not children of different ages.

The UK media regulator determined that recommending online services set a minimum age in their terms of service “would not be proportionate given we have limited independent evidence that age assurance technology can correctly distinguish between children in different age groups to a highly effective standard and, given this, there is a risk that this could have serious impact on children’s ability to access services.”

The U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology released an assessment of facial age estimation algorithms in May, but the preliminary results were previewed at a major UK event attended by Ofcom representatives in April, weeks before Ofcom’s draft code was released. It shows that false positive rates when judging whether children are under 13 range among the six entries from two with less than 10 in 100 (Incode and Yoti), to just over 23 in 100 (Unissey).

Online children’s safety advocates like the Molly Rose Foundation say the lack of a requirement to set a minimum age for social media platforms is surprising. The foundation argues that service providers “will be suitably incentivised to invest in age assurance technology to detect and remove under 13s.”

Ofcom says it plans to review and update the recommended measures as new evidence emerges.

The letter from the eight peers says they are “bewildered” at the decision to not enforce age minimums while granting safe harbor to regulated businesses.

An editorial for The Telegraph by Kidron expresses disappointment, and argues that Ofcom is not recognizing any difference between the needs of 5-year-olds and 15-year-olds.

She suggests that the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill represented an attack on the digital privacy rights of children and others, and calls for a joint parliamentary committee to ensure regulators use their powers as intended in legislation.

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