UK Age Verification Ready for Spring 2019 Rollout

By Liz Walker, Director of Health Education, Culture Reframed

Age Verification to prevent children under the age of 18 from accessing online pornography is set for rollout in the UK. The House of Lords approved the final piece of legislation relating to guidance for the new UK Age Verification system on December 11, 2018, with final sign-off from the House of Commons passed December 17. Enforcement is anticipated to begin before Easter 2019. 

Understandably, people have many questions about Age Verification, set alongside a seemingly deliberate campaign of misinformation initiated by opponents of the measure. To set the record straight, here are some common questions and issues that are being raised.

I don’t want to give my personal details to a porn site.

Age Verification will not require consumers to share their personal details with a porn site. In fact, it will potentially provide users with a greater level of anonymity. The companies emerging to provide the verification solutions will verify the age of someone using a number of options such as via the face-to-face purchase of a card, uploading documents online, or other digital measures. The company will then issue the individual a digital token which, in effect, tells the porn company that this individual has been verified as being over 18. That is the only thing the porn company needs to know. Not your name. Not your address or credit card number. Companies selling alcohol and tobacco along with betting companies, will also use the same systems. Having a digital ID will not necessarily single a person out as a consumer of porn.

Some concerns have been expressed about an AV provider called “AgeID,” which is owned by Mindgeek – the same company that Dr. Gail Dines of Culture Reframed has regularly exposed as a porn industry leader. However, even here it should be noted that AgeID is legally constituted as a separate entity from Pornhub; it would be illegal for the one entity to exchange any personally identifiable information with the other without the express consent of the owner of the information.

What if a hacker gains access to all personal data?

Every day, internet users take a risk with their personal data — everything from health information and banking records to driving license data are stored online. Age Verification companies will be subject to strict data protection standards. The AV Regulator in the UK is the British Board of Film Classification. They are expected to publish a list of AV solutions that are both effective and privacy compliant.

There is no way that international sites will comply with this. How will the UK make sure they get on board?

The bulk of the industry are already on board. In February 2018, an industry newsletter stated that they are fully aware “Britain’s efforts [are] a model for those to come.” The Free Speech Coalition – a U.S.-based trade association for the porn industry – indicated that “with the Digital Economy Act in the UK, we’re likely to see similar regulation elsewhere….”

If porn companies refuse to comply, they could find themselves subject to a range of financial and other sanctions. The Regulator will notify search engines, social media sites, payments providers, and other online ancillary service providers of the identities of any non-compliant porn sites. The expectation is that these businesses will withdraw their services from the porn sites. If a payments company were to withdraw its services, it is likely this would have an impact on the porn company’s ability to collect revenues worldwide.

There are tons of porn sites. How will the government restrict them all with regulatory demands?

The UK government is first focusing on the sites that attract the most traffic. They will also closely monitor evasion tactics and respond accordingly.

Age Verification is the first step toward censorship on the internet. That’s not the role of the government.

Age Verification is an issue of child protection. Censorship is when something is prohibited altogether. Adult consumers will still be able to access all the legal online pornography that is published by porn companies from anywhere in the world.

What about VPNs?

Porn sites are required to verify the age of all porn consumers trying to view content from a UK IP address. One potential circumvention strategy, therefore, would be to use a VPN that allows a user to appear to be in another country. However, even here, some of the VPNs are likely to require age verification, in which case the policy is not compromised.

It’s impossible to block all content and kids will find a way around it.

With so much hardcore content available online, it is impossible to ensure that all content is age verified. “Amateur” porn sites are not covered, although the truth is there are not very many of these. In addition, content exchanged via Bluetooth or USB sticks is not covered. Tech-savvy teens will no doubt still try to find ways to access pornography. However, the huge volumes currently available for anyone to look at will disappear from within the UK, making it much less likely that younger children will access this type of content, whether accidentally or otherwise. A robust public health approach is being developed in the UK to ensure children and young people have access to accurate sexual health information and education.

Will the UK AV stop porn on YouTube and social media as well?

Age Verification applies only to commercial pornography providers, even if the content is offered for free. If the site attracts revenue through advertising or it sells premium ‘paid’ content, it is classed as commercial. Therefore, AV will not change the way YouTube and social media platforms operate (unless they link to noncompliant pornography sites, in which case, they will be requested to block these sites or introduce AV).

That said, there are increasing calls for platforms such as YouTube, social media, apps, and gaming sites to design their platforms responsibly and respond to technology pitfalls with technological solutions. Safety by Design standards are being developed by the Australian Office of the eSafety Commissioner to “assist industry to embed user safety into technologies from the early stages of development by adopting tools to help children and young people navigate the online world in a safe way.” In the UK, the NSPCC has called for internet companies to be governed by minimum standards that safeguard children such as safe accounts with default privacy settings. In addition, 2019 will see OFCOM coordinating regulators from around the globe “to protect the public from online harms on social media platforms, many of which are based in the U.S.”

Measures are likely to include filtering of harmful content and responding to harmful conduct swiftly. It is expected that improvements made on any of the platforms, would not be limited to a region, but rather, benefit children around the world.

At Culture Reframed, we address the public health harms of pornography and recognize the effects of violent, sexist, racist, and misogynistic pornography. Culture Reframed is responding with robust education to equip parents. We welcome responses to regulate the porn industry and social media platforms, and believe at a bare minimum, Age Verification is an essential measure to protect children.

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