Policy

The UK finally got Big Tech to boost teens’ privacy

Google, Facebook and TikTok have announced new teen-protection measures in the U.S. ahead of obligations they'll face under the U.K.'s new digital design code for kids and teens.

The TikTok logo displayed on a smartphone screen

The U.K.'s new Age Appropriate Design Code is setting standards for the U.S.

Photo: Solen Feyissa/Unsplash

Social media platforms are suddenly all increasing privacy standards for teen users. Why now, after all these years? It looks like new U.K. privacy rules got the ball rolling.

TikTok on Thursday announced a series of measures to protect teen users, including limiting direct messaging for users under 16 by default, requiring those users actively to choose who can see their first video and limiting nighttime push alerts. The company's new policies follow similar recent moves by YouTube, Instagram and parent companies Google and Facebook to protect teen users.

In many cases, the services have said their decisions arose as they mulled the coming of the U.K.'s new Age Appropriate Design Code. The new standards, which includes 15 rules on issues such as data minimization and connected devices, goes into effect Sept. 2.

The AADC applies to services in the U.K. and outlines robust protections for young children that may be able to lessen as users age into their late teens. It has also prompted some U.S. lawmakers to lament the lack of online protections for teens in this country. The 1998 Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, for instance, establishes some rules for children age 12 and under, such as a parental consent requirement for data collection. Teens, though, are more or less on their own, even as social media sites are eager to lock in young users while they're still setting the latest trends.

Kids' advocates have long expressed concerns about a range of potential harms children can encounter online. These range from the likelihood that children come across violence and adult-only products such as alcohol, to the permanent collection of data from children who can't meaningfully or legally consent. That data, in turn, often powers marketing that may try to take advantage of young users' limited experience. Privacy advocates also have a long list of concerns about ads to users of all ages that, for instance, only offer educational opportunities to people of a certain race or that engage in other forms of discrimination regarding health care, housing or finance.

"Children and teens are a uniquely vulnerable population no matter where they live, and companies have an obligation to ensure that their online services put the welfare of young users first," Democratic Sen. Ed Markey and Reps. Kathy Castor and Lori Trahan wrote in June letters to the heads of Facebook, Google, TikTok and others. The lawmakers urged the companies to bring their U.K. protections for teens over to the U.S.

Most of the companies' responses in recent weeks stopped short of saying they'd import the protections wholesale to the U.S., but the sites did say they were considering what parts to implement worldwide.

"The privacy, safety, and wellbeing of young people on our platforms are essential and the Age Appropriate Design Code is one of the inputs that informs the expansive work we do every day to protect the safety and privacy of young people using our apps globally," Facebook said in its July 27 response.

The company's letter came out the same day that Facebook said it would limit the options for targeting ads to users under 18 on all its properties and that it would make private accounts the default for Instagram users under 16.

Although Google didn't tease details in its response to lawmakers, the company in August announced its own suite of changes. Those included defaulting to private upload on YouTube for those under 17, turning off autoplay on YouTube Kids and blocking "ad targeting based on the age, gender, or interests" of users under 18.

TikTok, which has been under pressure from lawmakers over its handling of data because it is so popular with teens, not only made recent changes but also highlighted prior actions. It said in January, for instance, that it would make accounts for users under 16 private by default.

Even Apple, which did not receive a letter from lawmakers about the U.K. code, recently announced child protection measures. Those changes focused on preventing sexual exploitation rather than data collection and content, but some policy experts still saw Apple's moves, which also relaunched debates about encryption, as a response to worldwide efforts to rein in controversial content and protect children.

Markey, who helped author the current U.S. rules for those under age 13, called the social media companies' recent changes "steps in the right direction to increase privacy protections for children and teens online," but said in a statement he wanted more.

"These voluntary policy changes are no substitute for legally enforceable rules that force websites and apps to stop putting corporate profits ahead of children's privacy," Markey said. To create those legally enforceable rules, Markey urged Congress to move forward his bipartisan bill that would create rules for companies' treatment of some teens online, as well as a ban on targeted advertising to children. A House proposal from Castor, meanwhile, would bring several proposed protections, including a ban on targeted ads, up to age 17.

Pressures on the companies to boost teen protections aren't just coming from London and Capitol Hill. Back in 2019 in the U.S., the Federal Trade Commission settled with YouTube and TikTok for alleged violations of the kids' privacy law. And the tech community largely views the current FTC as the most aggressive since the 1970s.

Since the European Union adopted the 2018 General Data Protection Regulation, some countries in the bloc also require parental consent for user data collection up to age 16, although individual nations can lower the threshold as long as they don't go below 13. The U.K. designed the AADC rules to elaborate on GDPR.

Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, is a longtime advocate for children's online privacy. These and other factors, he said, are "forcing the industry to pay attention to the teens."

He added that the companies are trying to stave off more aggressive actions, whether by lawmakers or agencies, in an area that has long been bipartisan.

"This is a deliberate ploy to head off stronger regulation," he observed.

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