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Is age-verification the answer to protecting children from online harms? #NAMA

Experts discussed the challenges of age verification for protecting children online and the importance of privacy for children.

“ …If a girl children wants to look at sexual reproductive tools, basically analyzing their body parts or something [and] want to access those websites and those tools, [they need] parental approval. The chances are that parents may not give their approval. And especially in a society like India, a patriarchal society, how many children will be comfortable going to parents? How many children who are confused about sexuality are accessing websites to consider sexuality? Will they be comfortable going to parents saying, “okay, we want access this website? Can you give us consent? Can you give the consent?”” asked Pallavi Bedi, Senior Researcher at the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS), when sharing her views on verification and children at MediaNama’sExploring User Verification’ event on March 23, 2023.

MediaNama hosted this discussion with support from Meta and Truecaller. The Internet Freedom Foundation, CUTS International, Centre for Internet and Society, and the Centre for Communication Governance at the National Law University, Delhi, were MediaNama’s community partners for this event. 

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Is age the only hurdle in protecting children online?

With the popularization of the age-appropriate design code in the EU and US, age verification has become the common response when talking about protecting children from online harms. However, Bedi pointed out challenges even within this framework like defining what a child is, demarcating the age of such a child, considering the child’s right to access when talking about parental consent, etc.

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Bedi said the method of verification should also be influenced by its purpose. For example, in cases of credit card transactions, the purpose of verification is to check the identity of the person using the card and the person who owns the card. So, in the case of age verification, is ensuring parental consent the purpose of verification?

Bedi argued that both privacy for children and of children are equally important. She gave the example of a European Union country like France whose privacy protection authorities said that there is “no correct way” of defining when a child should access a particular website, including porn websites.

Meanwhile, in India, Bedi said that authorities take a paternalistic approach when considering how a child may look at or access a website. She pointed out that a child may want to access counseling or seek protection. Yet the Digital Personal Data Protection Bill, 2022, only asks for age verification and parental or guardian consent.

“I think age is one parameter, the other thing is what websites are you accessing, are you going to block access to a lot of websites, which the government or anybody concerns that it is inappropriate for child to look at, but it’s important for child to access?” she asked.

Children learn to bypass norms: Ekta Jafri, a Design Mentor at The TechBridge, pointed out that nowadays children can get rid of “80 percent of the mechanisms” created to protect children online. Comparing it to baby-proofing items, she said that children find a way to bypass the tools meant to protect them.

“A child experimenting with his own sexuality, understanding whether he is gay or not, is very different from a child who is getting exposed to sexuality that is not his own and is being forced to get exposed to that kind of content, right? So how do you measure the difference?” she asked.

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For this reason, she argued that it is important for a technologist or a user researcher to understand this distinction from a child’s perspective.

Meanwhile, Aparajita Bharti, Co-Founder of the Young Leaders for Active Citizenship, said that the bigger problem in India is that “the tech community is not giving many other solutions to the government” other than age verification. She asked that tech companies share solutions of the technologies that look at verification proportionate to a particular use case without having to get into a KYC-like process.

This post is released under a CC-BY-SA 4.0 license. Please feel free to republish on your site, with attribution and a link. Adaptation and rewriting, though allowed, should be true to the original.

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Written By

I'm interested in the shaping and strengthening of rights in the digital space. I cover cybersecurity, platform regulation, gig worker economy. In my free time, I'm either binge-watching an anime or off on a hike.

MediaNama’s mission is to help build a digital ecosystem which is open, fair, global and competitive.



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