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How tech companies are trying to balance child safety and privacy

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

How can a website tell for certain that a visitor is over 18 or 21? In several states, lawmakers have told tech companies, figure it out. The goal is to restrict kids' access to social networks and porn sites. Right now it's easy to lie and get around age limits. The catch is stricter verification systems raise privacy concerns. Emma Roth of The Verge has been writing about the wave of new laws and the effort to balance child safety with privacy. She's here for our All Tech Considered segment. Welcome.

EMMA ROTH: Hi. Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: Lots of websites make you check a box that says, yes, I'm old enough to continue. But some states have already changed this policy, right? What's going on?

ROTH: Right. So in three states right now - Utah, Arkansas and Louisiana - there are already age verification tools in place for people to access social media sites or porn sites. In Louisiana and Utah, they have laws that aim to block users under the age of 18 from viewing porn, and in Arkansas, they require social media companies to implement age verification that blocks users under 18.

SHAPIRO: So this is already in place in Louisiana. What does it look like there?

ROTH: Yeah. So they are using something called AllpassTrust. What this system is is that you kind of upload a government ID to it, and the website will then check that and see if you're of age. And you'll either be let into the site or not depending on how old you are.

SHAPIRO: What other age verification options are on the table right now?

ROTH: So far, people have come up with ways maybe to use a credit card or a government ID to verify your age. However, this might exclude some adults, especially those with lower incomes, as they might not have access to a credit card or a government-issued ID. There's also something called face-based age detection, and this uses facial analysis to estimate the ages of users, so this will require access to a device's camera. Another possibility is an inferential age verification system that essentially guesses your age based on your browsing history or your activity on a platform.

SHAPIRO: How accurate is that?

ROTH: Well, that's the thing. It's going to be more difficult to kind of assess someone's age based on that information. And it could result in false positives that somebody is under 18, or it could even imply that someone's over the age of 18 when they're not.

SHAPIRO: Are there also privacy implications for that?

ROTH: There is. I mean, anything that involves giving away your government ID or a credit card - it always poses the risk of that information being hacked or leaked.

SHAPIRO: These are two important competing values - privacy concerns and child safety. Is there any consensus, even an emerging sense of how to balance these two things?

ROTH: Right now there honestly isn't. When it comes to privacy advocates and civil liberties lawyers, they both are in agreement that there's kind of no sound way to implement age verification at this time. And a lot of lawmakers are kind of rushing into this, but we really don't have a sense of what we can do yet to safely implement these methods.

SHAPIRO: Do you think this marks a larger shift in the way policymakers are thinking about access to the internet and who can go where with what rules?

ROTH: With this - with the introduction of these age verification methods, there's a chance that the internet could become more closed than ever, and the internet may never be the same with these methods put in place.

SHAPIRO: That's Emma Roth, reporter at The Verge. Thank you so much.

ROTH: Yeah, thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
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