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The sudden global push for age verification to end online anonymity and drive digital ID uptake

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Anonymity online, long considered by civil rights groups as a fundamental feature of the internet, is coming under fire from different directions, and through a range of methods: from criticism by political elites, to actual legislation.

One kind of new law that can undermine or do away with online anonymity are those mandating age verification before users are allowed on a website. Another effect these rules have is increasing the uptake of digital IDs.

Earlier this week, Senator Josh Hawley introduced the Making Age-Verification Technology Uniform, Robust, and Effective (MATURE) Act, whose goal is to prevent minors under 16 from accessing social media.

In order to ensure this, all users would have to have their age verified before creating an account, by giving up information fully revealing their identity: legal name, date of birth and a copy of a government issued ID that proves this is their actual name and age.

Hawley’s explanation for this and similar initiatives is that social media is harmful to children, from monetizing their data to facilitating exploitation and manipulation. But the solution would clearly affect everyone’s privacy by further “unmasking” them to notorious data collectors and (ab)users, those same social sites.

Age verification is also being pushed in some states but, in Utah at least, the proposal that has just been adopted in the local Senate is leaving out the government ID requirement.

The bill, known as SB152 and which will next be considered in the House, makes it mandatory for companies behind social media platforms to make sure that children can sign up only with their parents’ consent. To ensure this is the case, the ages of all users would be verified.

However, how exactly these companies can accomplish that remains unclear for now, while the bill’s sponsor, Utah State Senator Mike McKell, is quoted as saying that “there are third-party options that use various technologies to verify ages without government IDs.”

Facial recognition is mentioned in reports as one such option, while another is to use “existing consumer data.” Once again, the need for such legislation is explained as a way to protect children from bad influences online.

In January, legislators in Arkansas got busy pushing a new bill that would verify age, possibly through a digital ID. Here, the idea is to limit access of minors to adult sites, and if passed, it would also introduce liability to sites who do not comply.

Inspired by a similar piece of legislation, HB142, that became law in Louisiana at the start of the year, this one would require all visitors to prove their age by presenting government-issued ID, or what’s described as “a commercially reasonable method that relies on public or private transactional data.”

In Louisiana, the method is the LA Wallet app that contains a digital driver’s license and a health card, but Arkansas doesn’t have a Digital ID yet – although, officials are hinting that they are strongly considering introducing one. As for how things are going in Louisiana, reports suggest that people unwilling to hand over their personally identifiable data are simply using VPNs.

There’s no reason to think minors aren’t among them, so the sum total of these legislative efforts seems to be stripping as many internet users of their anonymity as possible, while failing to effectively shield children from inappropriate content.

There are, however, those who either don’t know how to work around the new Louisiana law, or are unwilling to, and so reports from December mention that the new rules are already driving LA Wallet’s uptake.

Most of these initiatives are coming from Republicans, and this instance is no different, where State Representative Laurie Schlegel was behind the adoption of the age verification bill, that applies to any site with 33.3 or more percent pornographic material.

Schlegel believes that pornography is “destroying children,” and advises using the LA Wallet to gain access to the sites. Envoc project manager Sara Kelley alleges that sites do not retain personal data, and also that the process doesn’t actually identify users’ exact date of birth, or any information from their device and the ID.

Instead, said she -“it just returns that age to say that yes, this person is old enough to be allowed to go in.”

As for legal liability of those sites who do not implement age verification, it is users, parents or guardians, who would have to sue them on behalf of the children viewing pornographic content.

Away from strictly “think of the children” ways of ushering in digital IDs and undermining or removing anonymity on the internet, the World Economic Forum (WEF) is thinking directly about that anonymity, and not in a positive way.

In fact, as one post from the group’s site said last year, “pure anonymity” is actually “a problem” – or at least, is capable of creating them.

The post was dedicated to one of WEF’s favorite subjects, a future “metaverse” and how to regulate and control it. Anonymity comes up in the context of community building and prompting people in a metaverse to exhibit what the WEF considers positive behavior.

“How do we encourage people to show up and be themselves in virtual environments, and how do we make sure they are protected when they do so?,” asks WPP CEO Mark Read, who penned the piece, and concludes that anticipating new behaviors will be a must.

These thoughts were expressed last spring, but it was not the first time that the WEF tried to grapple with online anonymity. In mid-2020, when the pandemic panic was in full swing and the Switzerland-based informal group of global elites was talking about “the building blocks of the Great Reset,” anonymity came up.

Speaking about the horrors of lockdowns (though the WEF didn’t put it that way), and how technology became the primary way for people to communicate, a blog post mentions that anonymity allows for trolling, polarization, and even leads to such ills as letting people “feel superior to others from the comfort of our own little bubble.”

For some reason, the same paragraph that blasts online anonymity also managed to include thoughts about climate change, environmental problems and animal suffering – by asserting that tech is essentially desensitizing people to all those.

Speaking of elites, there are world leaders who openly promote ending online anonymity. Last April French President Emmanuel Macron revisited this idea which he originally floated in 2019 within what’s known as the Great National Debate.

Back then, Macron spoke about gradually removing “all forms” of anonymity, and was this time somewhat astonishingly asserting that there is no room for anonymity in a democratic society.

At that time, the discussion was around racism and anonymous accounts that went after a group of English footballers. Macron said that just as a person “can’t walk around in the street wearing a hood” (?), they should not be allowed to wear the “pseudonym hood” on the internet.

But other officials in his administration previously pointed out that there is no true anonymity online anymore, anyway – users are not anonymous, “just pseudonymous,” as then Secretary of State for Digital Affairs Cedric O wrote in 2020.

And we all know why – the massive amount of personal information in possession of Big Tech, and law enforcement’s access to it.

Still in France, MPs are this February working hard to make sure that anything from Instagram to Pornhub is forced to require users to verify their age.

In Australia, the federal government was in 2021 hatching a plan to force social platforms to end anonymity as a means to deal with “bots and bigots and trolls.”

But experts weren’t sure that the legislation, as presented, would actually achieve the stated goal.

“We often hear these kinds of calls… equating anonymity with anti-social behavior and harassment,” Monash University’s Emily van der Nagel said at the time, adding that the idea “shows we’re not learning.”

The same year, they were showing that in the UK, they, too, are “not learning” regarding this issue. The discussion was launched because some angry fans took their frustration out on several black players for their performances, following England’s painful defeat in the European Championship final.

This produced an online petition urging the authorities to end anonymity on the internet, but many officials showed hesitancy, noting that while they think it can be exploited by bad actors -“introducing compulsory user verification for social media could disproportionately impact users who rely on anonymity to protect their identity.”

Those critical of such policies in general, argue that the problems existing on the internet linked with anonymity simply won’t be solved by getting rid of it. Some are convinced that this scenario would even create new ones, such as more risks for those who are already vulnerable or marginalized.

And, they say, killing online anonymity would also be unconstitutional – and base this argument on a number of US Supreme Court cases related to the topic. These critics also believe there is no difference between anonymity cases pertaining to “the real world” and those related to social media.

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