Should Websites Force Users to Prove How Old They Are? – The New York Times

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Major parts of the internet are being locked behind stricter digital age checks to protect children. Is that a good thing?
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Have you ever tried to access online content and run into an age check? What was your reaction? Did you welcome the safeguard or did you find it to be a nuisance?
Do you think age verifications are necessary to protect children from harmful and inappropriate online material? Do you believe they are effective? Or do you see them as an infringement on user privacy?
In “Anonymity No More? Age Checks Come to the Web.” David McCabe writes that in an effort to protect children online, more companies and governments are forcing users to prove how old they are:
Richard Errington clicked to stream a science-fiction film from his home in Britain last month when YouTube carded him.
The site said Mr. Errington, who is over 50, needed to prove he was old enough to watch “Space Is the Place,” a 1974 movie starring the jazz musician Sun Ra. He had three options: Enter his credit card information, upload a photo identification like a passport or skip the video.
“I decided that it wasn’t worth the stress,” he said.
In response to mounting pressure from activists, parents and regulators who believe tech companies haven’t done enough to protect children online, businesses and governments around the globe are placing major parts of the internet behind stricter digital age checks.
People in Japan must provide a document proving their age to use the dating app Tinder. The popular game Roblox requires players to upload a form of government identification — and a selfie to prove the ID belongs to them — if they want access to a voice chat feature. Laws in Germany and France require pornography websites to check visitors’ ages.
The changes, which have picked up speed over the last two years, could upend one of the internet’s central traits: the ability to remain anonymous. Since the days of dial-up modems and AOL chat rooms, people could traverse huge swaths of the web without divulging any personal details. Many people created an online persona entirely separate from their offline one.
But the experience of consuming content and communicating online is increasingly less like an anonymous public square and more like going to the bank, with measures to prove that you are who you say you are. This month, lawmakers in Washington, which has lagged other world capitals in regulating tech companies, called for new rules to protect young people after a former Facebook employee said the company knew its products harmed some teenagers. They repeated those calls on Tuesday in a hearing with executives from YouTube, TikTok and the parent company of Snapchat.
Critics of the age checks say that in the name of keeping people safe, they could endanger user privacy, dampen free expression and hurt communities that benefit from anonymity online. Authoritarian governments have used protecting children as an argument for limiting online speech: China barred websites this summer from ranking celebrities by popularity as part of a larger crackdown on what it says are the pernicious effects of celebrity culture on young people.
Students, read the entire article, then tell us:
Should the internet have stricter age verifications? If so, what parts of the internet and why? Do you think age checks are needed to better protect children from inappropriate material, or do you think they threaten the privacy and anonymity of online users?
What kinds of age checks have you experienced online? Do you think they are effective, or are they too easy to get around? Do you find these safeguards simple and painless to comply with? Or, like Mr. Errington, whose story begins and ends the article, do you see them as arduous tasks that cause you to throw up your hands and give up on accessing a desired website?
What is your reaction to the new age verification methods discussed in the article? What do you think of the idea that some sites require users to upload a government ID and a selfie? Or that some sites might use software that scans a user’s face to approximate the person’s age? What do you think about the idea that a company like Facebook might look for signs that users are lying about their age, such as spotting when someone who claims to be 21 gets messages about her quinceañera? Which of these new efforts do you think would be most useful or effective? What other methods to safeguard websites from minors would you recommend?
Hany Farid, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, believes that regulators and companies need to proceed with caution, arguing, “We don’t want the solution to be more harmful than the problem.” Do you agree? How worried should we be about possible solutions doing more harm than good? Which concern cited in the article do you find most significant?
How important are age restrictions for content, online or off? What do you think of age checks in general, such as for R-rated movies or music with explicit lyrics? Should the onus be on companies, governments and regulators to make sure young people are protected from possible harmful content? Or should it be up to families and parents to decide what’s appropriate? Why? What kinds of materials should come with age restrictions and verifications?
If you were a parent, what would you do to protect your children from inappropriate online materials? What kinds of rules would you put in place?
Want more writing prompts? You can find all of our questions in our Student Opinion column. Teachers, check out this guide to learn how you can incorporate them into your classroom.
Students 13 and older in the United States and Britain, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.
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