Social networks: can we really control the age of users?

The deputies adopted, Thursday, March 2, a bill providing for the obligation of social networks to verify the age of their users at the time of registration.

Social networks: can we really control the age of users?

The deputies adopted, Thursday, March 2, a bill providing for the obligation of social networks to verify the age of their users at the time of registration. Is this measure really applicable?

The National Assembly adopted at first reading, Thursday, March 2, a bill "aiming to establish a numerical majority and to fight against online hatred". It plans to require social networks such as Snapchat or TikTok to verify the age of their users when they register, but also to obtain parental consent when a child under 15 wishes to register on a of these networks. It thus fixes the "numerical majority" at the age of 15. In the event of non-compliance with these obligations by social networks, the bill provides for a fine of up to 1% of the worldwide turnover of the company concerned.

Carried by the deputy Horizons Laurent Marcangeli, the bill was adopted with 82 votes "for" and 2 votes "against" at first reading in the National Assembly, as reported by Le Figaro. It must now be considered by senators. With this bill, the deputies intend to better protect the youngest from the dangers relating to social networks, for example exposure to pornography or cyberbullying.

Thanks to this bill, parents will have a right of scrutiny and will be able to request the suspension of the account of their child under the age of 15. An amendment from the Renaissance group in the Assembly also provides that the parents of a child under the age of 13 cannot give their consent for him to register on a social network, with the exception of certain " labeled platforms". “The labeling will be issued under conditions defined by the Council of State and must take into account the particular interest that the platform presents for minors on the educational, cultural and pedagogical level in particular”, specifies this adopted amendment.

According to information from the National Commission for Computing and Liberties (CNIL), which was cited by the deputies during the examination of the bill, the first registration of a child on social networks "intervenes in average around 8 and a half years old, and more than half of 10-14 year olds are there". Information reported by Liberation. However, in most of the main social networks, the general conditions of use indicate that registration is only authorized from the age of 13, as Le Figaro reminds us. A condition which is therefore not met. Faced with this precociousness, does the State have sufficient means to actually enforce this bill?

The bill voted on Thursday in the Assembly plans to establish an obligation for social networks "to put in place a technical solution for verifying the age of end users and the consent of holders of parental authority" for under 15 years old. This "solution" will then have to be certified by the authorities, according to information from franceinfo. The ball is therefore in the court of social networks with regard to the establishment of means of verification of age and parental consent. Currently, Instagram is testing a tool that uses facial analysis to verify a user's age, as reported by BFMTV. The user's face is filmed, and the social network's algorithm determines their age. However, the method is not guaranteed to work every time.

It is very easy for many young people, who often know the workings of social networks much better than their parents, to lie about their age in order to register on one of these platforms. Parental control measures, implemented on some social networks, are not very restrictive. From now on, parents can request supervision of their child's Instagram account in order to set a time limit for use per day, as Le Figaro reminds us. In this case, parents also receive a notification when their child reports an account, and are informed of the reason for the report. However, this request for supervision must be granted. However, nothing is less certain, because the child in question is free to accept or refuse this request!

For its part, TikTok has implemented a family safety mode, which allows parents to limit the duration of use of the social network by their children, but also to restrict private conversations and inappropriate content. Information reported by the Journal des Femmes. To use this device, parents must register on TikTok. By linking their account to that of their child, they can then modify the security options. Given the popularity of social networks among the youngest, these measures do not seem, for the moment, to have had a significant impact on their use of these platforms.

In a notice published on July 26, 2022, the CNIL detailed several existing solutions for verifying the age of users online. However, "the organization considers it urgent that more efficient, reliable and privacy-friendly devices be quickly proposed and supervised". For now, here are some of the existing solutions that the CNIL echoes. First there is the "age verification by validation of a payment card". "Such a system makes it possible in particular to protect the youngest (approximately until they enter college), who cannot have a bank card allowing them to make an online payment and for whom the probability that they can use that of a third is the weakest", writes the CNIL.

The personal data regulator also mentions the solution of "age verification by estimation based on facial analysis". “To limit the risk of video capture and possible blackmail on camera, age verification solutions by facial analysis should be certified and deployed by a trusted third party respecting precise specifications”, specifies however the CNIL. Another possibility mentioned by the CNIL is that of an "offline verification system". Concretely, the administrative authority explains that, to access a site, it would be necessary to obtain a kind of "scratch card" on which would be registered an identifier and a password. "Scratch cards" which would therefore be accessible only to people of age to register on the site concerned.