Spain readies age-checking tech to protect children from adult online content

By Emma Pinedo

MADRID (Reuters) – Spain is developing age verification technology to prevent children from accessing inappropriate content online such as pornography or gambling sites, the head of the data protection agency said on Thursday.

Concern about the impact of pornographic, violent and other harmful material on youths still developing their identity and empathy is growing worldwide, as digitalisation and smartphones have made access easier.

More than half of Spanish teenagers have watched pornography before turning 13, according to a report by the NGO Save the Children.

“Just by checking the age of access to adult content, we can have a profound impact on a person’s development, health and life,” Mar Espana, who helms national data protection agency AEPD, told a news conference.

Earlier this month, Britain introduced new age-checking guidance to prevent children from accessing online pornography.

The inappropriate use of smartphones by Spanish minors came into the spotlight in September when prosecutors launched a probe into fake nude pictures of young girls generated through an artificial intelligence app that were circulating on social media and chatrooms used by teenagers.

On Wednesday, Education Minister Pilar Alegria floated regulating the use of phones in schools, proposing zero use during school hours in primary schools and only under teacher supervision for educational purposes at secondary schools.

She will meet with regional governments, which handle their own education policy, in January to discuss the plan’s implementation.

The new technology is being developed by the Royal Spanish Mint following AEPD recommendations. It will allow providers to ensure that the Internet user is an adult or has the minimum required age to access social media.

Users will download an app, a QR code or a certificate that verifies their age – using either an ID, a health or residence card, a driving licence or a passport – to access websites without disclosing any personal data to third parties.

The Mint expects it to be available by mid-2024.

Criminals pretending to be underage to lure children will not be able to access the sites as it will be impossible for them to register as minors, Espana said.

Spain’s antitrust watchdog CNMC, which oversees the audiovisual market, said a new law required providers to set up age verification systems and has asked parties to help implement them more efficiently.

AEPD will meet with Alphabet, Meta, TikTok, the Spanish videogame association, and other groups to explain its plans and obtain their feedback.

(Reporting by Emma Pinedo; Editing by David Latona and Tomasz Janowski)