Marketing Data & Privacy Data

New Chinese, US and UK digital laws have one thing in common; they could unravel the web


By Gordon Young | Editor-in-Chief

August 3, 2023 | 7 min read

The Drum’s editor-in-chief and co-founder, Gordon Young, wonders if online protections for children, such as proposed new laws in China, threaten the digital eco-system


Is the world wide web of regulation about to strangle the internet? It looks like China and the west can agree on one thing. The digital world can be a dangerous place for kids.

The Drum has reported how the UK and the US already have new laws in the pipeline to protect them. And this week, China announced that it is also looking at legislation limiting teenage smartphone use to two hours a day or less.

According to the Cyberspace Administration of China, CAC, the move will create a ‘safe and healthy internet environment for minors.’ A tiered system could see under eights permitted a maximum of 40 minutes of usage daily, eight-16s one hour, and 16-17s, a mere two hours.

Without a doubt, the plans currently out to consultation are the most draconian proposed by any jurisdiction. And they could usher in a new paradigm for the likes of TikTok. They are also the most far-reaching. For example, the UK and the US focus on protecting kids from harmful content.

The Chinese believe kids need greater protection from mobile devices generally so they grow into productive citizens. However, all three jurisdictions face similar challenges - chief among those is making online verification work without destroying the entire digital ecosystem.

In the UK, the Online Safety Bill will require platforms to gather additional user data to identify under agers. But Wikipedia has pointed out the inherent contradiction - the more data users provide, the more exposed they are to potential harm. So concerned is Wikipedia about such requirements - which conflict with their founding values - that they claim they would quit the UK if they became law.

In the US, as The Drum reported early this week, two new bills deal with the issue of child safety. But again, the problem of identifying children is problematic.

Aliya Bhatia, a policy analysis at the Center for Democracy and Technology, an organization working to advance civil rights in the digital age, summed up the issue thus: “Unlike [how] a bartender or a cashier at a liquor store can sort of... guess based on a face what [a customer’s] age is, and narrow down who gets that second check of an ID validation, an online service can’t do that. So that means all users – adults and children alike – will undergo some age estimation interstitial. That will require either data collection of some sort, in the form of collection and proof of ID, or some facial estimation biometric scanning, which is, again, a form of data collection and analysis.”

Either way, service providers are looking at a significant investment to comply. The industry cost of the Online Safety Bill alone is estimated to be around $2.5bn. But it seems like the cost of the new China regulations could be in a league of its own. If implemented, application download platforms would be required to create particular areas for apps that are suitable for minors. The ‘minor mode’ for smartphones and other devices would also bar access between 10pm and 6am.

Xia Hailong, a lawyer at the Shanghai Shenlun law firm, told The Telegraph the new rules would cause a headache for internet companies and may lead to them banning minors from using their services.

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“A lot of effort and additional costs to properly implement these new regulatory requirements. And the risk of non-compliance will also be very high. So many internet companies may consider directly prohibiting minors from using their services.”

In the US and the UK, many fear a similar issue - as the new laws would impose a duty of care on providers to protect young users from harmful content - around suicide, eating disorders, and self-harm, for example.

Tough sanctions for exposing under-18s to harmful content and challenges around age verifications may make providers super cautious. In contrast to China, where providers may try and ban kids, the tendency in the west might be to treat all users as children.

But there is no doubt the costs of these measures will be high regarding freedom of expression, privacy, and hard cash - shares in Chinese tech firms tumbled in the wake of the CAC news.

And many doubt it will do much to protect young people, as one Weibo user wrote: “The rule will not solve the root problem - kids always find a way to bypass these restrictions.”

But of course, a more fundamental issue is playing out, particularly in the US, UK, and Europe - which has just passed its online act.

Will national governments be able to tame the internet truly? For better or for worse, we are about to find out.

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