Encouragingly, there is a bipartisan bill on child protection online calling for a feasibility study into how age verification might be handled at the device or operating system level, as Meta is suggesting, though some civil liberties groups have broader concerns about the bill.
Making the app stores function as a centralised age verification mechanism reduces the risk of highly personal data being widely disseminated among several entities responsible for verifying ages on behalf of each and every app. Give those details once to either Apple or Google – something you’ve likely already done – and you’re good to go. (Apple declined to comment on Meta’s blog post; Google did not respond to requests for comment.)
Critics of Meta might at this point scoff at the company positioning itself as some kind of champion of child protection.
Its blog post comes just days after a former employee testified to the US Senate that Facebook ignored repeated warnings on harassment of teens through the app. Along with other leading apps, Meta faces hundreds of lawsuits that contend its apps are intentionally addictive to young people.
Those criticisms deserve to be heard but can be treated separately. Protecting young people on the internet will always be a delicate balancing process: The rights of parents to protect their children, the rights of teens to have their own private spaces, and the rights of everyone to use the internet freely and without any greater erosion of privacy than has already happened.
It’s complicated. But when one obvious step can be taken – one with, as far as I can see, no negative consequences – we shouldn’t hesitate to take it.