Snap is under NDA with the UK’s Home Office as part of a working group tasked with coming up with more robust age verification technology that’s able to robustly identify children online.
The detail emerged during a parliamentary committee hearing as MPs in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) questioned Stephen Collins, Snap’s senior director for public policy international, and Will Scougal, director of creative strategy EMEA.
A spokesman in the Home Office press office hadn’t immediately heard of any discussions with the messaging company on the topic of age verification. But we’ll update this story with any additional context on the department’s plans if more info is forthcoming.
Under questioning by the committee Snap conceded its current age verification systems are not able to prevent under 13 year olds from signing up to use its messaging platform.
The DCMS committee’s interest here is it’s running an enquiry into immersive and addictive technologies.
Snap admitted that the most popular means of signing up to its app (i.e. on mobile) is where its age verification system is weakest, with Collins saying it had no ability to drop a cookie to keep track of mobile users to try to prevent repeat attempts to get around its age gate.
But he emphasized Snap does not want underage users on its platform.
“That brings us no advantage, that brings us no commercial benefit at all,” he said. “We want to make it an enjoyable place for everybody using the platform.”
He also said Snap analyzes patterns of user behavior to try to identify underage users — investigating accounts and banning those which are “clearly” determined not to be old enough to use the service.
But he conceded there’s currently “no foolproof way” to prevent under 13s from signing up.
Discussing alternative approaches to verifying kids’ age online the Snap policy staffer agreed parental consent approaches are trivially easy for children to circumvent — such as by setting up spoof email accounts or taking a photo of a parent’s passport or credit card to use for verification.
Social media company Facebook is one such company that relies a ‘parental consent’ system to ‘verify’ the age of teen users — though, as we’ve previously reported, it’s trivially easy for kids to workaround.
“I think the most sustainable solution will be some kind of central verification system,” Collins suggested, adding that such a system is “already being discussed” by government ministers.
“The home secretary has tasked the Home Office and related agencies to look into this — we’re part of that working group,” he continued.
“We actually met just yesterday. I can’t give you the details here because I’m under an NDA,” Collins added, suggesting Snap could send the committee details in writing.
“I think it’s a serious attempt to really come to a proper conclusion — a fitting conclusion to this kind of conundrum that’s been there, actually, for a long time.”
“There needs to be a robust age verification system that we can all get behind,” he added.
The UK government is expected to publish a White Paper setting out its policy ideas for regulating social media and safety before the end of the winter.
The detail of its policy plans remain under wraps so it’s unclear whether the Home Office intends to include setting up a centralized system of online age verification for robustly identifying kids on social media platforms as part of its safety-focused regulation. But much of the debate driving the planned legislation has fixed on content risks for kids online.
Such a step would also not be the first time UK ministers have pushed the envelop around online age verification.
A controversial system of age checks for viewing adult content is due to come into force shortly in the UK under the Digital Economy Act — albeit, after a lengthy delay. (And ignoring all the hand-wringing about privacy and security risks; not to mention the fact age checks will likely be trivially easy to dodge by those who know how to use a VPN etc, or via accessing adult content on social media.)
But a centralized database of children for age verification purposes — if that is indeed the lines along which the Home Office is thinking — sounds rather closer to Chinese government Internet controls.
Given that, in recent years, the Chinese state has been pushing games companies to age verify users to enforce limits on play time for kids (also apparently in response to health concerns around video gaming addiction).
The UK has also pushed to create centralized databases of web browsers’ activity for law enforcement purposes, under the 2016 Investigatory Powers Act. (Parts of which it’s had to rethink following legal challenges, with other legal challenges ongoing.)
In recent years it has also emerged that UK spy agencies maintain bulk databases of citizens — known as ‘bulk personal datasets‘ — regardless of whether a particular individual is suspected of a crime.
So building yet another database to contain children’s ages isn’t perhaps as off piste as you might imagine for the country.
Returning to the DCMS committee’s enquiry, other questions for Snap from MPs included several critical ones related to its ‘streaks’ feature — whereby users who have been messaging each other regularly are encouraged not to stop the back and forth.
The parliamentarians raised constituent and industry concerns about the risk of peer pressure being piled on kids to keep the virtual streaks going.
Snap’s reps told the committee the feature is intended to be a “celebration” of close friendship, rather than being intentionally designed to make the platform sticky and so encourage stress.
Though they conceded users have no way to opt out of streak emoji appearing.
They also noted they have previously reduced the size of the streak emoji to make it less prominent.
But they added they would take concerns back to product teams and re-examine the feature in light of the criticism.
You can watch the full committee hearing with Snap here.