Protection of minors and online age verification: the case of France

The debate on online protection for minors is gaining momentum in Europe. Despite certain European regulations providing safeguards for minors in the digital environment, there are still pending challenges. One of the main issues is the search for technical solutions to verify users' ages while respecting their privacy. In this regard, France has been a pioneer with its proposal for an age verification system.

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The debate on how to ensure responsible use of technology and guarantee a safe digital environment for minors is becoming increasingly relevant. One of the most controversial issues is the establishment of an age limit at which minors should be able to access certain content, as well as the implementation of a mechanism to certify that the user actually meets the minimum age requirement.

Technologies exist that can ensure age verification, but in most environments, these technologies involve an intrusion into privacy that most users find unacceptable. The balance between privacy and the reliability of age verification technology has not yet found a completely satisfactory answer, but important steps have been taken. These steps constitute a milestone in ensuring responsible use of technology.

The European Union’s response to the protection of minors online

The European Union (EU) has implemented several regulations aimed at protecting children online. On one hand, the EU has adopted the Audiovisual Media Services Directive (AVMSD) and the Digital Services Act (DSA), both of which advocate for the adoption of appropriate measures to safeguard children online. Specifically, the AVMSD includes measures like age verification, while the DSA ensures the removal of inappropriate content and restricts targeted advertising based on minors’ profiles. On the other hand, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) aims to safeguard minors’ data. The GDPR outlines rules for obtaining parental consent when processing children’s personal data in the context of online service provision.

However, none of these EU initiatives fully tackle the issue of child online protection. The real challenge lies not so much in the willingness of policymakers and regulators to create a safe environment for minors but in the difficulty of implementing these measures and restrictions reliably and effectively. As a result, there has been a proliferation of national initiatives by Member States, with France leading the way in Europe by seeking solutions to enhance protection for minors in the digital realm.

Responses at the national level: the case of France

According to the Commission Nationale de l’Informatique et des Libertés (CNIL), the French data protection agency, more than half of children between the ages of 10 and 14 use social networks, exposing them to cyberbullying, pornographic content, pedophilia, and a lack of moderation on social networks and other digital platforms. Recognizing this situation, during his speech at the “Speech on Europe at the Sorbonne” (Discours sur l’Europe à la Sorbonne), French President Emmanuel Macron emphasized the need to enhance the protection of minors online to shield them from the “jungle” of the digital realm. In this regard, Macron expressed his support for establishing a digital age of majority in Europe, potentially set at the age of 15.

The French government has been actively working on a set of measures to reduce children’s screen time and ensure greater protection in the online environment. As part of these efforts, in July 2023, the French government enacted a law requiring social network service providers to deactivate the accounts of children under 15 years of age unless expressly authorized by a parent or guardian. Failure to comply with this requirement could result in fines of up to one percent of the platform’s global sales.

France is also exploring measures to control access to certain websites and platforms, particularly those containing pornographic content that may be accessed by underage users. Presently, platforms typically request only a simple confirmation of conformity with content and an unverified age confirmation from the user. However, this approach has proven ineffective.

A more direct solution would involve requesting user identification. Nonetheless, both data protection authorities and users view this approach as constituting an excessive intrusion into privacy. Consequently, efforts are underway to explore alternative technical solutions utilizing external verification methods that can offer a more privacy-enhancing environment.

France’s Proposal for online age verification

Since 2023, the French regulator has been testing an age verification system based on the use of an intermediary to guarantee user privacy and ensure more reliable age verification. Essentially, with the implementation of this verification system, the website would not have access to data identifying the user, while the intermediate verifier would have no information about the website accessed by the user.

What is currently known about the French age verification proposal is that the system will operate through a gateway provided by the social security system. When a website requires age verification, a challenge will be sent to the user. This challenge will then be processed by the verification provider, resulting in a group signature. In this process, the authorities will have no information about the websites the user attempts to visit, and the target website will not receive any data from the user, only their group signature. This represents a fundamental application of cryptography within the age verification environment.

Although critics of the system point out that it is not entirely anonymous, the French proposal undoubtedly represents a significant step forward in attempting to ensure a safer digital environment for minors.

The debate is undoubtedly set to take center stage in the new European institutional cycle opening in 2024. Many countries are exploring various solutions and initiatives. Ultimately, a uniform solution will be necessary across all European countries. New technologies offer the promise of a solution that will aid us in progressing towards our collective goal of ensuring responsible technology use, especially among minors.


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