By Jim Killock
The government intends to require pornographic websites to verify the age of their customers, in order to exclude under 18s from accessing inappropriate material. Setting aside for a moment whether this is the right approach or even achievable, the consequences are potentially disastrous.
Around half of UK adults access pornography, including a large proportion of women. This bill therefore places perhaps 25 million UK adults at risk of data leaks and fraud.
Age verification (AV) is not an easy task. In this case, it needs to be accurate, private, secure, trustworthy, easy and very cheap. Up until now, sites have employed either an ‘honesty box’ approach (‘proceed only if you are over 18’) or taken a card payment to imply age. Neither are robust. In the case of pornography, card details are not an appropriate means to verify age. Encouraging people to use them in this way creates a potential gold mine for fraudsters.
So behind the scenes, the government encouraged industry to find their own ‘solutions’ to the problem. In parallel, the industry wrote UK guidelines for age verification systems, known as PAS 1296 at the BSI. How official sounding. It must be good.
Unfortunately, industry efforts so far appear woeful. At an event a few weeks ago, the various providers touted their solutions. One involved scraping Facebook profiles to guess your age; which is as horrific as it sounds (and as Admiral Insurance found out, against Facebook’s T&Cs).
Others leveraged credit cards. This would not only open up the possibility of fraudulent imitations, it would also cause chaos for the payment industry, who look for small, token payments as a sign that criminals are ‘testing’ the validity of stolen card details.
Another tried to use people’s mobile phone numbers to work out if they were over 18. This would be discriminatory against people who use unregistered pay-as-you-go phones, for instance. A further likely approach would be for IT companies to attempt to register users, perhaps alongside credit card details. This could help them track users across the pornographic internet. Others were complicated, or deployed security measures that worried our security experts.
Given that the solutions for the age verification system seem to be at best embryonic, you’d hope that the digital economy bill would regulate the privacy aspects tightly, in order that issues such as porn tracking, massive databases, fraud and cybersecurity would be minimised. There is none of it. Not once is privacy mentioned. AV systems aren’t mentioned, either.
Instead, the bill hopes to empower the regulator to specify what qualified as a website that verifies age. It is a recipe for chaos and confusion.
It isn’t as if the UK government doesn’t know how to do age verification either. It has experience in creating Verify, which does exactly this while keeping user data separate from government services. Why isn’t the government advocating using Verify, you might ask? Cost is the most likely reason.
Aside from all the risks the government is taking with UK adults’ privacy and security, the obvious question is whether AV technologies can be forced on foreign websites. Here, the bill’s strategy was to create a legal duty for card and advertising companies to cut off UK payments to non-compliant sites.
Many sites wouldn’t care of course, as they are too small, or the UK market is not significant to them. This will be a commercial decision for them, and at the long tail of pornographic websites, implementing UK age verification will simply never happen.
That leaves the embarrassing likelihood that even if major pornographers adopt AV technology, teenagers will merely have to click through another page or so of results to get to material that is not blocked. This does not seem like the result that was intended.
Thus Conservative MPs – led by Claire Perry and backed by Labour – have forced the government to propose website blocking as part of the armoury for the regulator. Here, the regulator will be able to block sites that don’t implement AV.
This of course creates a paradox that perfectly legal material is being restricted for adults as well as under 18s. While that may not worry MPs, it is bound to impact sexual minorities. Advocates claim that this is not censorship. We can argue about whether the state’s aim is to restrict the availability of pornography to adults, but it certainly will be the effect.
As the Guardian pointed out on Wednesday, once a regulator has the ability to decide what compliance looks like, the BBFC will inevitably want to specify whether websites are conforming with their view of UK law. Non-compliant websites won’t qualify and will be open to sanctions including blocking.
As we know, the BBFC and UK legal views of what is acceptable pornography is rather narrower than that of most US publishers. It remains to be seen if it is practical for them to curate their massive back catalogues in such a way as they restrict material for a UK audience.
For UK readers, the question you should ask is whether you want the government investing in this infrastructure of control, and where they might apply this approach next. In our experience, once MPs have a taste for censorship, they develop an unpleasant and anti-social addiction.
Jim Killock, is executive director of the Open Rights Group.