Won't someone think of the children
Age verification for accessing "adult" internet sites will become a legal requirement by Easter of this year. The change in law, originally intended for twelve months ago, was pushed back to this year, but once again, good intentions result in poor plans by law makers, and we seem no further forward than we were twenty years ago or more.
In the real world, we have age verification. People under 18 cannot buy alcohol in pubs, and they cannot go to see an X-rated movie. Minors cannot buy cigarettes, and in pre-internet days, could not buy the top-shelf magazines at the newsagents. With the advent of the internet and a smart phone in every school bag, people quite rightly ask what we are doing to protect children from the ocean of unregulated pornography on the web.
When the "Online Pornography (Commercial Basis) Regulations", aka "smut laws", come into effect later this year, websites where more than one third of the content is classified as pornography will be required to implement mandatory age verification. The British Board Of Film Censors (BBFC) will be responsible for enforcing compliance.
The rule of law
There are obvious problems with this approach, not least of which is that the internet crosses national boundaries. How can we expect websites based in, Russia, Brazil, or Thailand to comply with UK rule of law? If a website refuses to put age checks in place, the BBFC has the powers to contact providers to the website, including social media companies, and request that they withdraw their services. They will also be able to request that credit card companies block payments. That's still only a request though. As a final resort, the BBFC can order UK ISPs to block access to the site entirely at a network level, although that still won't stop determined people accessing sites using proxy services.
Again, this begs the question, will international credit card companies, paypal, and social media companies, be willing to accommodate those requests, and will the overseas porn sites even care? Given the vast numbers of sites on the internet, the ease with which these sites spring up under new domain names, and the ease with which porn can be found using search engines, will the BBFC really have sufficient resources to police the web effectively?
The proposals also have question marks surrounding the classification of sites, and the wording of the regulations. It specifically applies to commercial sites, yet surely it is the material itself which is dangerous, not the profit margin. It also specifies sites where more than one third of the content is pornography, but how do you measure the proportion of content. Do you measure it by pages on site or by page views? Do you measure bytes delivered, time spent on site, or surface areas of the page. And why one third? Why not 5%, or 50%? Is there any basis in logic for that figure, or was it plucked out of the air for political reasons?
How will age verification work?
That is the multi-million dollar question that the legislation fails to address. How can a website reliably check how old somebody is? Whilst some websites already ask "Are you over 18, yes or no?", that is a token gesture rather than a verification, and it certainly won't keep out inquisitive children.
One widely-suggest method is that adults should have to enter their name, postcode, and credit card details to prove they are adults, on the basis that you need to be over 18 to hold a credit card. Does anyone seriously think children are not smart enough to get hold of the details of their parent's credit card. It would also be a short-sighted policy. If the UK ever moves towards being a cashless society, we might find we all need plastic of some description, even school children.
The credit card method also opens up too much possibility for fraud. Hackers already use porn sites as honeytraps to lure the unsuspecting to malicious websites which infect the visitor with viruses or ransomware. If unscrupulous websites are already willing to do that, imagine what they could do with your credit card details as well. Card scammers could also start putting small unauthorised charges against cards for "optional extras", secure in the knowledge that embarrassment about being linked to a porn site, or fear of career impact, would inhibit many people from reporting the fraud, even if their card has been used without their knowledge.
But at least they are doing something
I expect the same will be true of age verification. Countless numbers of sites will implement it as another obstacle to using the web, just in case its needed, having been told it is essential by their brother in law who saw something about it on TV. Sites completely unaffected by the smut laws will implement it, because they have a page about beer, or tampons, or other "adult" products. And some sites will welcome age verification as yet another way of profiling and tracking people under the pretext of compliance with UK law.
But think of the children...
There is the very real danger that politicians will slap themselves on the back, and tell the world that "my government has made the web a safe place for children". This could lead to complacency, even less parental supervision whilst using the net, the assumption that unclassified pages and user-generated content on social media must have been deemed safe by experts, and the unexpected consequence that it becomes even easier for unattended minors to find the top-shelf websites or inappropriate material. Technology is no substitute for parenting.
31st January 2019
This article comes from the SKILLZONE email newsletter, published monthly since January 2008, and covering topics related to technology and the internet. All articles and artwork in the SKILLZONE newsletter are orignal content. If you would like to receive the newsletter direct to your inbox each month, please SUBSCRIBE here. It is free, and you don't get added to any other mailing lists. It uses best-practice confirmed opt-in only, and you may unsubscribe at any time.