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China is escalating its war on kids’ screen time

(One important caveat I should note: Jeremy Daum, a senior fellow at the Yale Law School Paul Tsai China Center, points out that the rules may not, at least at first, be binding; for example, the regulation has not laid out the liability for companies that fail to comply.)

I’m curious to see how legislators in the United States will respond, since some are trying to introduce similar rules. 

My colleague Tate Ryan-Mosley has written about the recent wave of child safety bills being proposed across the US. One of the major obstacles for these rules is that they are hard to enforce technically. In some ways, China’s detailed planning for “minors’ mode” could be instructive for other governments interested in translating child safety concerns into the language of app development and regulation. (Of course, I doubt any American legislator would publicly endorse a piece of Chinese regulation.) 

But with increased control come even more concerns about personal data (a point I also made back in March in a piece about limits on TikTok use). As Tate asked in The Technocrat, her newsletter on tech policy, in April: “[A]ll this legislation depends on verifying the ages of users online, which is hugely difficult and presents new privacy risks. Do we really want to provide driver’s license information to Meta, for example?”

Beijing has an easier time answering that question. The government has already built a comprehensive national identity verification system that the gaming and social media companies are using to discover underage users’ accounts. It is also more comfortable and adamant about deciding what content (politics, LGBTQ issues, uncensored news, etc.) is not for children. (The US is catching up on that.)

In the end, it’s the same technical system that protects children from harm, censors online speech, and collects vast amounts of personal data. It’s the same paternalistic attitude that determines what children should watch and what adults should read. How comfortable are we in pushing the balance further to the side of centralized control rather than individual decision-making?

If you are a parent, how do you feel about China’s new and old rules restricting minors’ internet use? I want to hear from you. Write to me at zeyi@technologyreview.com.

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