Now Europe wants you to prove how old you are online

Is the age of online anonymity coming to an end? If you live in the European Union, that might soon be the case.

New information came out regarding an EU project called the pan-European framework for electronic identification, authentication and signature (PEFIAS) is out — and it’s had some interesting tweaks.

We heard about this plan for the first time late last year, when it was proposed as a good way of making online transactions more secure. But now it seems the scheme will also be used to prove people’s age online. Why? For the kids, of course. The one-size-fits-all nature of the internet is increasingly a headache for regulators who are trying to protect children, and here the EU wants to provide a possible cure.

This new mission for PEFIAS was revealed in the European Commission’s Strategy for a better internet for children. It’s a weighty document that’s full of suggestions for keeping kids safe online — not just on the desktop, but also on tablets, mobile phones and game consoles, where the EC wants parental control tech to be built in.

The EC is also calling for a new system of age classification to be devised for apps, and it has already proposed a new data protection regulation for safeguarding children’s online privacy.

Of course, none of this makes any sense unless users can prove their age. Hence:

The Commission intends to propose in 2012 a pan-European framework for electronic authentication that will enable the use of personal attributes (age in particular) to ensure compliance with the age provisions of the proposed data protection regulation.”

We’re looking at PEFIAS again, but this time it’s not about electronic signatures; it’s about proving how old you are. And industry is also expected to “implement technical means for electronic identification and authentication.”

For what? Will EU citizens have to use their e-ID to opt in for viewing porn, for example? Will social network profiles have to be linked to real-world, passport-grade identities? These are questions that officials will hopefully answer when they make their full proposals public at the end of May.

It’s far too early to get paranoid about this, but that’s just the kind of reaction that often follows mission creep. Just look at the likes of ACTA — it may have kicked off with the best anti-counterfeiting intentions, but picking through the details revealed additional implications that made it an altogether more sinister beast.

Tech changes

There’s plenty in the strategy for the tech and content industries to chew on, too. Here it’s hard not to see things getting less EU-specific, because the products we’re talking about aren’t just made for Europe.

Here’s what the EC wants industry to do:

  • Develop new age classification schemes and age-appropriate privacy settings for social networks, etc.
  • Put parental controls into “all internet-enabled devices available in Europe”
  • Come up with more content for kids, especially stuff that encourages creativity
  • Who’s going to pay for this? Is the EU going to fund the development of this technology? Are we looking at new responsibilities for the likes of Apple (s AAPL), Facebook and Microsoft (s MSFT)? Would state-funded development of child-friendly apps distort the market?

    Right now we can only ask questions. Soon, hopefully, we’ll have some answers.