news & Things

Question Asked: How Safe For Children is the Oculus VR Headset?

10th Jan 2022

Talks have been prompted due to concerns over multiple instances of child harrasment on VRChat

Meta could face a fine of up to four per cent its annual global turnover if the Oculus headset is breaking child safety rules.

The UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) will be seeking clarification on whether the device is compliant with the Children’s Code and will be seeking this clarification from Meta directly by asking about the parental control features on the Oculus Quest 2 VR headset.

The clarification comes about due to warnings from child safety campaigners who have pointed out how the £300 device lacks parental controls, which puts it in violation of the new protection code.

The campaign group Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) found numerous cases of abuse on  VRChat, Oculus’ popular social tool.

CCDH found that one of these cases involved two heavily breathing men following around a young person’s avatar. Another case had a man joke joked in front of an under-18 that he was a “convicted sex offender.”

The creator of the Children’s Code herself, Baroness Beeban Kidron, states her concern over the safety of children on the Oculus platform, as it has been made too easy for children to be exposed to abuse, harassment, and sexual content.

Meta has its own age barriers in place – VR users must use their Facebook account which has a minimum age requirement of 13, but this doesn’t mean Meta is implementing the Code’s age checks, according to Kidron. All a child has to do do, hypothetically, is simply tick a check box to say they’re old enough and then they’re granted access to potentially harmful VR chatrooms.

The ICO wants answers from Meta about whether their VR headsets and services have enough measures in place to protect children’s privacy and data.

Online services and products that use personal data and are likely to be accessed by children are required to comply with the standards of our children’s code,”

We are planning further discussions with Meta on its children’s privacy and data-protection-by-design approaches to Oculus products and virtual reality services. Parents and children who have concerns about how their data is being handled can complain to us at the ICO.

ICO spokesperson

 

What is the Children’s Code?

The UK’s Age Appropriate Design Code (aka the ‘Children Code’) is a set of regulations written into law as part of the 2018 Data Protection Act. Although it came into force in September 2020, organisations were given a 12-month grace period in order to audit themselves for compliance.

The Children’s Code contains 15 standards that companies must implement in any digital services used by children: from social media sites and apps to online games, connected toys, and even educational and news websites.

If Meta has violated the code then Meta could face an onslaught of penalties.

The penalties given by officials could be anywhere from a warning being issued, a fixed financial penalty of £17.5 million being imposed, or they could face a fine up to four per cent of global turnover.

A Meta representative issued a statement and told The Guardian that the company is confident the VR technology complies with the Code’s requirements, and they are committed to honouring the rules established by the ICO.

The spokesperson then goes on to emphasise that children under the age of 13 precluded from its products under the terms and services, however the statement does not address the concerns over how easy it is for minors to circumvent the policy.

Meta is committed to a $50 million (about £37 million) initiative, which it says is to establish the metaverse’s development’s compliance with all applicable laws and regulations.

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