Dec 9, 2021 - Technology

Social platforms say it's hard to tell which users are kids

Illustration of two children facing a giant ominous computer.

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Tech giants including Instagram are calling for Congress' help in figuring out just how old their users actually are.

Why it matters: In order to create child-friendly experiences, online platforms need to identify which users are actually children.

Driving the news: Instagram head Adam Mosseri became the latest industry leader to highlight the challenges of verifying the ages of users at a hearing before the Senate Commerce consumer protection subcommittee on Wednesday.

  • Children under 13 aren't allowed on Instagram, but Mosseri told lawmakers it is very difficult to verify ages on the internet, especially given many teens don't have government-issued IDs.
  • The company uses "classifiers" to try to predict age and asks users who appear too young to prove their age, Mosseri said.
  • "It's not perfect, which is why I believe there are better, industry-wide ways to solve age verification because it really is an industry challenge," Mosseri said.

Catch up quick: A federal law, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA, requires online services to obtain parental consent before collecting data and personal information about users under 13.

  • Many online services use an age gate — asking a user to enter their birthdate — to determine age, but there are obvious limitations to that approach.

The intrigue: Mosseri pitched lawmakers on age verification at the phone-level.

  • "Have a parent who gives their 14-year-old a device tell the phone that their child is 14, as opposed to having every app — and there's millions of apps out there —trying to verify the age on their own," Mosseri said.
  • He also called for "an industry body" that will determine best practices on how to verify the age of users, how to build age-appropriate experiences and how to build parental controls.

Meanwhile, TikTok also has highlighted the limitations of the age-verification work it does, and has pushed for legislation from Congress to address the issue.

  • Michael Beckerman, vice president and head of U.S. public policy for TikTok, said an update to COPPA should include "a better way to verify age across the internet, across apps rather than the system that is in place now," during a Senate hearing in October.

Reality check: Some legislators and advocates find it hard to believe the platforms can't determine the ages of their users, given the information they collect.

  • "If a platform has information that allows them to serve up advertising and for them to offer advertisers age brackets below what is supposed to be available on their site, I think it demonstrates they have the capacity to protect those same individuals," Amina Fazlullah, director of equity policy for Common Sense Media, told Axios.
  • "If they really want to do age verification, they could have done it well before now," Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D- Conn.) said at a press conference following today's hearing.
  • "They have the data," Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) said at the press conference about Instagram's age verification claims. "This is something they have the capability to do and we would like to see them implement this sooner rather than later."

The big picture: Lawmakers of both parties are outraged over social media's potential to harm kids, and have promised regulation to better protect children online.

  • But they showed little interest in Instagram's struggles with age verification or Mosseri's pitch for an industry body to tackle the issue at the hearing.
  • "They want Congress to give them a political out and say do the age gating and all the problems are gone versus regulating the business model, " Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, told Axios.
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