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TechScape: How the UK forced global shift in child safety policies | Facebook

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I bring good news: regulation works.

The last month has brought a flurry of changes to major tech platforms related to child safety online, and specifically to the use and protection of children’s personal data.

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First, there was Instagram. In late July, Facebook announced some sweeping changes to the platform, billed as “giving young people a safer, more private experience”. The company began giving those under 16 private accounts by default, ensuring that kids only share content publicly if they actively dive into settings and change their privacy preferences accordingly.

It also introduced a new set of restrictions for people with “potentially suspicious accounts” – “accounts belonging to adults that may have recently been blocked or reported by a young person for example.” In other words, if you’re a creep who goes around messaging kids, you’ll soon find that young people don’t show up in your algorithmic recommendations; you won’t be able to add them as friends; you won’t be able to comment on their posts; and you won’t be able to read comments others have left.

Finally, the platform announced “changes to how advertisers can reach young people with ads”. People under 18 can now only be targeted on Instagram by “their age, gender and location”: the vast surveillance apparatus that Facebook has built will not be made available to advertisers. Instagram’s rationale for this is that, while the platform “already [gives] people ways to tell us that they would rather not see ads based on their interests or on their activities on other websites and apps … young people may not be well equipped to make these decisions.”

At the time, I found that last change the most interesting one by far, because of the implicit claim it was making: that it’s bad to target people with adverts if you’re not absolutely certain that’s what they want. Facebook would hardly accept that targeted advertising can be harmful, so why, I wondered, was it suddenly so keen to make sure that young people weren’t hit by it?

Along came Google

Then YouTube announced a surprisingly similar set of changes, and everything started to make a bit more sense. Again, the default privacy settings were updated for teen users: now, videos they upload will be private by default, with users under 18 having to manually dig into settings to publish their posts to the world.

Again, advertising is being limited, with the company stepping in to remove “overly commercial content” from YouTube Kids, an algorithmically curated selection of videos that are supposedly more child-friendly than the main YouTube catalogue. In YouTube proper, it’s updated the disclosures that appear on “made for kids” content that contain paid promotions. (Paid promotions are banned on YouTube Kids, so despite being officially “Made for kids” such content isn’t allowed on the platform explicitly for kids. Such is the way of YouTube).

And YouTube also introduced a third change, adding and updating its “digital wellbeing” features. “We’ll be turning to take a break and bedtime reminders on by default for all users ages 13-17 on YouTube,” the company said. “We’ll also be turning autoplay off by default for these users.” Both these settings can again be overruled by users who want to change them, but they will provide a markedly different experience by default for kids on the platform.

And TikTok makes three

A couple of days behind Google came TikTok, and everything clicked into place. From our story:

TikTok will prevent teenagers from receiving notifications past their bedtime, the company said … [It] will no longer send push notifications after 9pm to users aged between 13 and 15. For 16-year-olds and those aged 17 notifications will not be sent after 10pm.

People aged 16 and 17 will now have direct messages disabled by default, while those under 16 will continue to have no access to them at all. And all users under 16 will now be prompted to choose who can see their videos the first time they post them, ensuring they do not accidentally broadcast to a wider audience than intended.

It’s probably not a coincidence that three of the largest social networks in the world all announced a raft of child-safety features in the summer of 2021. So what could have prompted the changes?

Age appropriate

Well, in just over two weeks’ time, the UK is going to begin enforcing the age appropriate design code, one of the world’s most wide-ranging regulations controlling the use of children’s data. We’ve talked about it before on the newsletter, in one of the B-stories in July, and I covered it in this Observer story:

The code, which was introduced as part of the same legislation that implemented GDPR in the UK, sees the Information Commissioner’s Office laying out a new standard for internet companies that are ‘likely to be accessed by children’. When it comes into force in September this year, the code will be comprehensive, covering everything from requirements for parental controls to restrictions on data collection and bans on “nudging” children to turn off privacy protections.

I asked the platforms whether the changes were indeed motivated by the age appropriate design code. A Facebook spokesperson said: “This update wasn’t based on any specific regulation, but rather on what’s best for the safety and privacy of our community. It’s the latest in a series of things we’ve introduced over recent months and years to keep young people safe on our platforms (which have been global changes, not just UK).”

TikTok declined to comment on whether the changes were prompted by the code, but I understand that they were – though the company is rolling them out globally because, once it built the features, it felt it was the right thing to do. And according to Google, the updates were core to the company’s compliance with the AADC, and the company said it was aiming beyond any single regulation – but also wouldn’t comment on the record.

I also called up Andy Burrows, the head of child safety online policy at the NSPCC, who shared my scepticism at claims that the timing of these launches could be coincidental. “It is no coincidence that the flurry of announcements that we’ve seen comes just weeks before the age appropriate design comes into effect,” he said, “and I think it’s a very clear demonstration that regulation works.”

The lack of public acknowledgment from the companies that regulation has influenced their actions is in stark contrast to the response to GDPR two years ago, when even Facebook had to acknowledge that it didn’t suddenly introduce a whole array of privacy options out of the goodness of its heart. And the silence has correspondingly led to an odd gap at the heart of coverage of these changes: they’ve had widespread coverage in the tech press, as well as many mainstream American papers, with barely a whisper of acknowledgment that they are almost certainly down to a regulatory limitation in a mid-sized European market.

That, of course, is exactly how the tech companies would want it. Recognising that even a country as comparatively minor as the UK can still pass regulations that affect how platforms work globally is a shift in the power relationships between multinational companies and national governments, and one that might spark other nations to reassess their own ability to force changes upon tech companies.

Not that everyone is fully compliant with the age appropriate design code. The big unanswered question is around verification, Burrows points out: “The code is going to require age assurance, and so far we haven’t seen publicly many, or indeed any, of the big players set out how they’re going to comply with that, which clearly is a significant challenge.” In everything I’ve written above – every single restriction on teen accounts – the platforms are fundamentally relying on children to be honest as part of the sign-up process. It’s hard to verify someone’s age online, but very soon UK law isn’t going to take “it’s hard” as a sufficient excuse. The next few weeks are going to be interesting.

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South Korea sets reliability standards for Big Tech • The Register

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South Korea’s Ministry of Science and ICT has offered Big Tech some advice on how to make their services suitably resilient, and added an obligation to notify users – in Korean – when they fail.

The guidelines apply to Google, Meta (parent company of Facebook), Netflix, Naver, Kakao and Wavve. All have been told to improve their response to faults by beefing up preemptive error detection and verification systems, and create back up storage systems that enable quick content recovery.

The guidelines offer methods Big Tech can use to measure user loads, then plan accordingly to ensure their services remain available. Uptime requirements are not spelled out.

Big techs is already rather good at resilience. Google literally wrote the book on site reliability engineering.

The guidelines refer to legislation colloquially known as the “Netflix law” which requires major service outages be reported to the Ministry.

That law builds on another enacted in 2020 that made online content service providers responsible for the quality of their streaming services. It was put in place after a number of outages, including one where notifications of the problem were made on the offending company’s social media site – but only in English.

The new regulations follow South Korean telcos’ recent attempts to have platforms that guzzle their bandwidth pay for the privilege. Mobile carrier SK Broadband took legal action in October of this year, demanding Netflix pitch in some cash for the amount of bandwidth that streaming shows – such as Squid Game – consume.

In response, Netflix pointed at its own free content delivery network, Open Connect, which helps carriers to reduce traffic. Netflix then accused SK Broadband of trying to double up on profits by collecting fees from consumers and content providers at the same time.

For the record, Naver and Kakao pay carriers, while Apple TV+ and Disney+ have at the very least given lip service to the idea.

Korea isn’t the only place where telcos have noticed Big Tech taking up more than its fair share of bandwidth. The European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association (ETNO) published a letter from ten telco CEOs asking that larger platforms “contribute fairly to network costs”. ®

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Twitter acquires Slack competitor Quill to improve its messaging services

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As part of the acquisition, Quill will be shutting down at the end of the week as its team joins the social media company.

Twitter has acquired the messaging platform Quill, seen as a potential competitor to Slack, in order to improve its messaging tools and services.

Quill announced that it will be shutting down at the end of the week as its team joins the social media company to continue its original goal “to make online communication more thoughtful, and more effective, for everyone”.

The purchase of Quill could be linked to Twitter’s new strategy to reduce its reliance on ad revenue and attract paying subscribers.

Twitter’s general manager for core tech, Nick Caldwell, described Quill as a “fresher, more deliberate way to communicate. We’re bringing their experience and creativity to Twitter as we work to make messaging tools like DMs a more useful and expressive way people can have conversations on the service”.

Users of Quill have until 11 December to export their team message history before the servers are fully shut down at 1pm PST (9pm Irish time). The announcement has instructions for users who wish to import their chat history into Slack and states that all active teams will be issued full refunds.

The team thanked its users and said: “We can’t wait to show you what we’ll be working on next.”

Quill was launched in February with the goal to remove the overwhelming aspects of other messaging services and give users a more deliberate and focused form of online chat.

In an online post, Quill creator Ludwig Pettersson said: “We started Quill to increase the quality of human communication. Excited to keep doing just that, at Twitter.”

The company became a potential competitor for Slack, which was bought by Salesforce at the end of 2020 for $27.7bn. The goal of that acquisition was to combine Salesforce’s CRM platform with Slack’s communications tools to create a unified service tailored to digital-led teams around the world.

Last week, Salesforce announced the promotion of Bret Taylor to vice-chair and co-CEO, just days after he was appointed independent chair of Twitter after CEO Jack Dorsey stepped down.

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Australians’ 2021 Google searches: Covid comes out on top with sport our favoured non-pandemic distraction | Google

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The Covid-19 pandemic once again dominated internet searches in Australia this year, as lockdowns gripped the two largest states, and people sought vaccines.

Google has compiled data on the most popular search terms from the previous 12 months, which showed Covid’s dominance in Australia was challenged by people looking for an escape in sports. The NBA, AFL, cricket, NRL, football, Wimbledon and the Olympics took out the top spots for most searched sport in Australia in 2021.

The Covid situation in New South Wales dominated news-related searches, with the Delta outbreak forcing the state into the longest continuous lockdown in 2021. Victorians, having endured the most number of days in lockdown since the pandemic started, did not appear to seek out information about the Covid situation in their own state nearly as much, with “coronavirus Victoria” coming in fifth in news-related searches, even behind Queensland at number three.

For the second year in a row, people Googled “how to make face masks” more than any other DIY-related search. As residents in NSW, Victoria and the ACT endured extended lockdowns, at-home activities like making your own candles, playdough, paper planes, and chatterboxes soared.

As Australia’s vaccination “strollout” gathered pace in the second half of 2021, people searched how to get their vaccination certificates, how to book their Covid vaccination, how to link their Medicare to myGov, and how to enter the Million Dollar Vax campaign.

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The shocking disappearance of West Australian four-year-old Cleo Smith and the dramatic rescue over two weeks later was the second biggest news event searched on Google by Australians. The ongoing search for missing toddler William Tyrrell came in sixth.

The former federal attorney general Christian Porter’s name dominated Google search trends in the days leading up to a press conference where he outed himself as the unnamed minister in an ABC report about an alleged historical rape. He vehemently denies the allegations. In his now-settled defamation suit against the ABC, lawyers for Porter raised that after the report searches of his name “increased significantly and much more so than any other senior male cabinet members”.

The former minister, who announced last week he would not recontest his WA seat of Pearce at the 2022 federal election, appears eighth in the 2021 list of news-related searches.

Porter was the fourth most-searched person overall in Australia, behind Cleo Smith, Ash Barty, and William Tyrell. The new NSW premier, Dominic Perrottet, came in sixth.

Bringing up the rear of news searches was the moment that shook Melbourne – literally – the 5.9 magnitude earthquake that hit Victoria in September.

Interest in all things cryptocurrency was also reflected in Australian searches with cryptocurrency exchange Coinspot the ninth most searched term, and people searched how to buy Dogecoin.

Prince Philip was the most searched among those who died in 2021, followed by US woman Gabby Petito, and Australian entertainment giant Bert Newton.

Thanks to Jaden Smith and Britney Spears, people were searching for the meaning of the word “emancipated” more than any other word in 2021, followed by “insurrection” after the events at the US Capitol on 6 January, then it was “gaslighting”, Naidoc and NFT.

Despite emerging late in the year, Omicron came in sixth as people looked up the meaning of the latest Covid-19 variant of concern.

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