By Jeff Kosseff 

Since the dawn of the commercial internet, Americans have spoken and accessed information online without providing their names.

Political dissidents freely express their views. Patients search for health information without fearing public embarrassment. Domestic violence victims seek help online, shielding their communications from their abusers.

State and federal lawmakers threaten to upend that culture of anonymity. And that should worry all Americans.

In March, Utah enacted a law that requires parental consent for children under 18 to use social media, and it requires platforms to “verify the age” of all Utah residents. In April, Arkansas passed a similar law, requiring social media companies to use “reasonable age verification.” And in Congress, a bipartisan group has introduced the Protecting Kids on Social Media Act, which requires social media platforms to “take reasonable steps” to verify users’ ages.

Age verification requirements endanger the ability of Americans to operate anonymously online, as the laws require the collection of information from everyone regardless of age. The statutes do not mandate a specific type of age verification; indeed, their vagueness on that point suggests that nobody quite knows how to meet the requirements without creating massive privacy problems.

The Utah law punts the issue to regulators, though it states that age verification can’t be limited to only government ID cards. The Arkansas law allows social media companies to determine what verification method is reasonable, and it includes a driver’s license as one such way of meeting the requirement. The federal proposal states that the age verification must be “beyond merely requiring attestation.”

Whether the verification is via government identification cards, facial scans, or other technologies, these laws encourage companies to amass information that could link the person’s identity to their social media activities. Companies simply have not found a magical solution that can both fully safeguard a user’s identity and verify their age with sufficient accuracy to meet the legal requirements.

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Non-Resident Senior Fellow
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Jeff Kosseff is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow for The Future of Free Speech. He writes about online speech, the First Amendment, and Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.