UK watchdog to grill Meta over child safety in VR

Officials are concerned there aren't enough protections for kids.

Devindra Hardawar/Engadget

Meta is facing more scrutiny over its approach to child safety. The UK's Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) told The Guardian in a statement that it was planning "further discussions" with Meta about the Quest 2 VR headset's compliance with a recently established children's code that priorities the "best interests" of young users. The watchdog wants to determine whether Meta's headset and VR services do enough to protect the privacy and data of kids.

Baroness Beeban Kidron, who developed the code, was concerned Meta's platform made it too easy for kids to sign on and risk abuse, harassment and explicit content. Meta might require a Facebook account (and thus that a user be at least 13 years old), but that doesn't mean it's implementing the code's required age checks. Children can jump into potentially dangerous VR chatrooms just by "ticking a box" to say they're old enough, Kidron said.

A Meta spokesperson told The Guardian the internet giant was "committed" to honoring the children's code, and was "confident" its VR hardware met the code's requirements. The representative stressed that terms of service don't allow children under 13 to use the products, but didn't address worries it was too easy for kids to ignore that policy. The firm has already promised a $50 million program to make sure its metaverse development obeyed laws and regulations.

The UK could deliver a wide range of punishments if the ICO finds Meta violated the code. While officials might do little more than issue a warning, they could also fine Meta either a fixed amount up to £17.5 million (about $23.8 million) or as much as 4 percent of its worldwide turnover — over $10 billion. There's at least some pressure on Meta to toughen child safety in VR, even if it's just to protect the company's finances.