A Driver’s License for the Internet

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Like millions of other teenagers, Jack Merrill, an 18-year-old living outside of Chicago, regularly uses the online game platform Roblox. So when it rolled out a new feature — voice chatting with other users — he wanted to try it. But first, he had to pull out his driver’s license.

Jack had to pass through what’s called an age gate, an identity check that is becoming increasingly common online. Roblox wanted to verify that he was at least 13 before he could voice chat. The game asked for government identification to confirm his age, and a selfie to ensure that the ID was his.

These checks are popping up across the internet as part of a global push to protect children’s safety. At least two dozen states have proposed or passed website age restrictions, many of which are focused on limiting access to pornography. Countries like Britain, Italy and Japan have passed similar laws. As of this month, seven states have passed laws requiring age checks for users on websites like Pornhub. Companies are also limiting children’s access to dating apps, gaming platforms and online shopping.

Social media is the next major target: Last week, France passed a law that will require social media platforms to verify the ages of their users and get parental consent for children under 15. Lawmakers in Congress have introduced a bill to create a minimum age for social media use, too.

But instead of only carding children who appear to be underage, age checks can ask every user to present their ID. Lawmakers in favor of the restrictions say it’s the necessary cost of creating a safer internet, but civil liberties advocates are concerned about the effects of age checks on privacy and internet freedom.

Lawmakers tried for decades to shield children from content they thought was harmful. They encouraged ID checks for R-rated movies and forced websites like MySpace and Facebook to ask that users self-report their ages. Those checks were rudimentary: With a click and a white lie, anyone could pass.

The latest attempt to restrict access to the internet is different in two ways.

First, the technology has changed. Websites can accurately discern the ages of users using digital copies of driver’s licenses or passport scans, options that weren’t available to use broadly even a few years ago.

Second, public opinion has shifted. Children are experiencing a national mental health crisis, and a majority of parents say it is their top parental concern coming out of the pandemic. They’re particularly worried about social media, which the U.S. surgeon general recently warned poses a health risk to children.

Those mental health concerns have prompted the latest wave of age restriction proposals, including laws that have passed in Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas, Utah and Virginia. Many lawmakers say that the internet should be treated as a controlled substance, like cigarettes or alcohol.

“We have agreed as a society not to let a 15-year-old go to a bar or a strip club,” Laurie Schlegel, the Republican state representative behind the Louisiana age-verification law, told my colleague Natasha Singer. “The same protections should be in place online so that you know a 10-year-old is not looking at hard-core pornography.”

Most companies using age checks assure users that their data won’t be saved. But privacy activists say that many companies and governments, which are already susceptible to data breaches, aren’t prepared to check ages without incidentally saving or revealing intimate information about users’ internet behavior — what they’re watching, who they’re talking to or what they’re buying.

The activists say that age checks are part of a slow creep toward a world where companies, and even democratic governments, have a near-total view into people’s lives. This is already the case in China, where the government uses widespread surveillance to track its citizens and limit dissent. China has cited the protection of children as a reason to restrict speech online.

“Surveillance is very much tied to authoritarianism,” said Carissa Véliz, author of the book “Privacy is Power.” “We’re really testing the limits of democracy.”

Age checks don’t always work, privacy activists argue, pointing to potential loopholes such as virtual private networks. Children can also ask someone older to help them create an account, or attempt to use fake identification. The age gates are also a barrier to the internet for some adults, who can’t get them to work, or lack identification.

The patchwork of different forms of access is creating different versions of the internet for every American, where their rights and abilities to access information vary depending on their age and where they live.

  • Parents are worried that video games and social media spike their children’s dopamine levels, a brain chemical connected to addiction. But the science is mixed.

  • Can A.I. beat the problem-solving ability of the best mathematicians? Some think it will soon.

  • The next generation of chatbots doesn’t have many of the guardrails put in place by companies like Google and OpenAI.

  • Janet Yellen will visit China for the first time as Treasury secretary. The trip is intended to help stabilize the relationship between the world’s two largest economies.

  • Israel launched airstrikes on the occupied West Bank in what it called an “extensive counterterrorism effort.” At least seven people were killed.

  • Thousands of hotel workers in Southern California went on strike, demanding higher pay and better benefits.

  • The number of migrants crossing the southern border is down, but officials say the lull won’t last.

  • A shooting at a block party in Baltimore killed two people and wounded 28 others, many of them teenagers.

Instead of fighting to retain police officers who feel threatened by accountability, cities should let them quit, Radley Balko writes.

The Supreme Court rejected the so-called independent state legislature theory, but some version will loom over the 2024 elections, Richard H. Pildes writes.

Vladimir Putin has himself to blame for the mutiny that substantially weakened his authority, Mikhail Zygar argues.

Here are columns by Ezra Klein on Biden’s economic policies and Maureen Dowd on Chris Christie.

A long-awaited change: Wimbledon is adjusting its all-white dress code to ease the stress of women’s periods, The Athletic reports. Players say it’s about time.

Foes to friends: Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova had a 15-year tennis rivalry. Sally Jenkins at The Washington Post writes about how they bonded while having cancer at the same time.

Closing the loop: The golfer Rickie Fowler won his first PGA Tour title in four years, The Athletic reports.

Unlikely partnership: Chicago gave its streets to NASCAR for racing, but the weekend was rainy and the reviews were mixed, The Times writes.

The new taste of Texas: Texas is a barbecue capital of the United States. But in recent years, the state’s trademark cuisine has evolved from its excellent mainstays — brisket, beef sausage and pork ribs — into fusion creations by a diverse new generation of pitmasters. Meats once seasoned with only salt and pepper now taste like lemongrass, fenugreek, gochujang and turmeric; brisket can be found in curry, enchiladas, shawarma and ramen.

These are the 20 best places to try Texas barbecue, according to Times food writers.

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