In an effort to mitigate children’s exposure to certain content, the UK government is actively examining an “Online Safety Bill.” Recent findings have revealed instances of pre-teens accessing “hook-up” and gambling websites, which is likely to prompt significant reforms from platforms such as Google, Apple, and others.
Social media platforms and service providers are facing heightened scrutiny on multiple fronts. TikTok is encountering challenges in the US, while Meta (formerly Facebook) is under investigation in Europe over alleged failures to safeguard user data. YouTube, on the other hand, is facing accusations of collecting data from children under 13 years old in the UK.
In addition to these concerns, Google and Apple have recently been subject to antitrust violations in the European Union, resulting in substantial financial penalties of nearly $20 billion combined (with the possibility of further penalties pending another ongoing case involving Apple). Now, all of these platforms are confronted with a new issue that has the potential to inflict even more significant repercussions.
The digital realm has become a playground for children
The advancement of the UK’s Online Safety Bill has garnered significant support, but advocacy groups are urging lawmakers to introduce further control measures. Baroness Beeban Kidron, the founder of child advocacy group 5Rights, is particularly exerting pressure for amendments to the bill.
The objective is to compel online platforms such as Google and Apple to genuinely enforce the policies they have repeatedly promised to uphold. The reality, however, reveals that these platforms have been deceptive in their claims.
Both Google, through its Google Play app store, and Apple, through its App Store, fail to prevent underage smartphone and tablet users from accessing adult-oriented websites. This means that teenagers and pre-teens can easily access anonymous chatrooms, online casinos, and dating apps.
Efforts to implement a rating system for apps akin to those used in movie theaters and video games, designed to restrict children from accessing adult content, have proven unsuccessful. For instance, despite the slots app Jackpot World being intended solely for adults of legal gambling age, anyone can download it, as highlighted by The Times.
While TikTok states that it is exclusively for users aged 13 or older, Apple allows access from the age of 12. Furthermore, TikTok is expanding its gambling advertisement pilot in Australia despite lacking an age control mechanism.
Although age ratings on Google Play and the App Store are not consistently flawed, there are discrepancies in the ratings themselves. Some apps may be listed as suitable for ages 15+ on the App Store but as 18+ on Google.
No ID? No worries
Compounding the issue is the absence of genuine age verification mechanisms by platforms and providers. Users can easily input false ages when creating profiles on Google, TikTok, and other social media platforms to circumvent age restrictions.
Baroness Beeban Kidron, an accomplished filmmaker renowned for works like “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar,” is leading the charge for legislative changes that would hold Google and Apple accountable. Alongside Baroness Dido Harding, Kidron advocates for amendments to the Online Safety Bill, which would mandate Google and Apple to implement risk assessments and age verification measures.
Support for these initiatives is rapidly growing, with several Members of Parliament already endorsing them, many of whom were unaware that existing protective policies for children were lacking.
Baroness Kidron carries significant influence within political circles, not only in the UK but also in other countries. She and 5Rights played a role in California’s efforts last year to introduce a similar bill, the California Age-Appropriate Design Code Act, which was successfully signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom in September.