Utah Considers Proposals to Require Web Services to Verify Users’ Ages, Obtain Parental Consent to Process Teens’ Data
Update: On March 23, Governor Spencer Cox signed SB 152 and HB 311. While amendments were made to both bills, the concerns raised in FPF’s analysis remain. SB 152 leaves critical provisions, such as methods to verify age or obtain parental consent, to be established in further rulemaking, but questions remain regarding whether these can be done in a privacy-preserving manner. SB 152’s requirement that social media companies provide parents and guardians access to their teenager’s accounts, including messages, has raised security concerns and questions about what sort of parental access mandates are appropriate for teens online.
Utah lawmakers are weighing legislation that would require social media companies to conduct age verification for all users and extend a parental consent requirement to teens.
The Utah legislature has introduced two similar, competing bills that seek to regulate online experiences for Utah users. SB 152 would require social media companies to verify the age of all Utah users and require parental consent for users under 18 to have an account. The bill would also require social media companies to provide a parent or guardian access to the content and interactions of an account held by a Utah resident under the age of 18. On February 13, SB 152 was amended to replace the prescriptive requirements for age verification (e.g. requirements that companies obtain and retain a government-issued ID) with verification methods established through rulemaking, but concerns remain that a rulemaking process could nonetheless require privacy-invasive age verification methods.
Utah HB 311, as originally introduced, would have required social media companies to verify the age of all Utah residents, require parental consent before users under 18 create an account, and would also prohibit social media companies from using “addictive” designs or features. On February 9, the bill was amended to remove the age verification and parental consent provisions; the provisions regarding design features remain, as does a private right of action. The amended bill passed the Utah House and moved to the Senate, where it will be considered alongside Utah SB 152.
FPF shared our analysis of these bills last week, focusing on three areas:
Parental consent under COPPA has longstanding challenges:
FPF published an analysis and accompanying infographic regarding verifiable parental consent (VPC) under COPPA, which was informed by research and insights from parents, COPPA experts, industry leaders, and other stakeholders. The white paper and infographic highlight key friction points that emerge in the VPC process, including:
- Efficacy: It can be difficult to distinguish between children and adults online, and it is harder still to establish whether a particular child is related to a particular adult. While the approved methods under VPC may confirm someone is an adult, they do not confirm whether that adult is a parent or guardian of a child.
- Privacy and security: Parents often do not feel comfortable sharing sensitive information, such as their credit card or ID information, and having that information linked to their child’s presence online.
Age verification requires additional data collection:
As written, Utah’s proposed legislation would require companies to affirmatively verify the age of all Utah residents. A key pillar of privacy legislation and best practices is the principle of data minimization and not collecting information beyond what is necessary to provide a service. Requiring social media companies or their agents to collect this data would increase the risk of identity theft resulting from a data breach. We also note that since some social media companies are based outside of the United States (with some located in jurisdictions that have few effective privacy rules), there is an inherent security risk in the increased collection of sensitive data for age verification purposes.
Additionally, as written, Utah’s proposed legislation specifies that ages must be verified without a definition of what “verify” means. Companies would benefit from clarity on whether age verification or age estimation is required. An example of age estimation might include capturing a “selfie” of a user to estimate the user’s age range. Verifying someone’s exact age almost always requires increased data collection compared with estimating an age range or age bracket. Some of the current age estimation technology can accurately distinguish a 12 year old from someone over 25, resulting in a much smaller number of users that would be required to provide sensitive identity documentation. Although methods of verification and forms or methods of identification will be established by further administrative rulemaking, compliance with the proposed legislation as written may still necessitate companies to require government-issued ID to access their services.
Protecting children and teens online should include increasing privacy protections:
FPF knows that children and teens deserve privacy protections and has highlighted Utah’s leadership in this space, notably in the education context. However, a one-size-fits-all approach may not be appropriate given developmental differences between young children and teens. Similar to how children under 13 can access services with safeguards under COPPA, teens stand to derive benefit from online services such as socializing with peers, distant family, and communities. Utah’s legislation proposes to restrict access to services rather than enhancing privacy protections on these services. Enhanced privacy protections could not only benefit children, but could benefit adults as well. Because many parents may ultimately choose to provide consent, it is important to consider how privacy protections could be implemented on online services.
These youth-focused proposals follow last year’s passage of the Utah Consumer Privacy Act – a comprehensive privacy law that created some new rights for Utah residents, but provides fewer protections than other state frameworks. Adding privacy protections for young people would not just help Utah align with other states but also would address several of the privacy risks the social media bills would create. Examples of privacy protective provisions include:
- Classifying children’s and teens’ data as sensitive data and restricting the sale or use of children and teens’ data for targeted advertising by default;
- Adding provisions requiring data minimization, restrictions on secondary uses, or a prohibition against processing personal data in violation of state and federal anti-discrimination laws; and
- Providing all consumers with a right to opt out of profiling.