Policing the internet - an age old problem

05 January 2017. Published by Joseph Byrne, Associate

Porn, violence, gambling – how we deal with these taboos of the digital age is a big question, and one which the UK government has started to tackle.

As part of its debates on the Digital Economy Bill (DEB), the government is considering the introduction of age verification technology aimed at preventing underage individuals from accessing adult content.

In simple terms, age verification is an age or date of birth attribute check to determine eligibility to access goods and services. A common example would be providing ID when purchasing alcohol. However, in the digital sphere this gives rise to complications.

Is it possible?

As it stands, the draft DEB sets out that the standard website 'tick box' or 'enter your date of birth' approaches are not sufficient. Therefore, a mechanism is required to assure the asserted date of birth provided. Proponents of age verification have put forward third party validation as the answer to this, for example the provision of credit card details.

On the face of it, an individual who has a credit card has already provided proof to a bank that they are over 18. There are, however, significant drawbacks.

Firstly, individuals may fear that websites that provide adult content are not in a position to store their data securely. They may find it difficult to trust a website that is not designed to process this type of information. This issue is brought acutely into focus by the fact that, under the DEB, an age verification regulator will be introduced with no duty to protect against cyber security risks that may emerge from these systems.

In particular, commentators have noted how this influx of data could cause issues for high profile users. Alec Muffett, board member of the digital rights organisation Open Rights Group, recently highlighted that “A high price would be paid by tabloid newspapers for a list enumerating the porn preferences of the Manchester United first eleven.”

Secondly, there is nothing to stop an under-age individual asserting another person's evidence, for example a parent's credit card. Consequently, a means of confirming the link between the individual and the evidence asserted is required. A host of options have been considered:

  • a smartphone app which compares a selfie with the photo ID relied upon;
  • technology such as Verifu, which accesses Facebook to confirm identity; and
  • biometric identifiers, such as a retina scan.

Without much consideration, the above suggestions raise a number of issues: administrative burden, providing a website with access to vulnerable personal data and the fact that the technology is not widely available.

At the moment, the government's discussions focus on the distribution of porn but it is unclear where the line will be drawn. Taking the above smartphone app as an example, could you imagine having to upload a selfie every time you watch an over 18 rated music video?

An extra hurdle to jump

Beyond the practical hurdles of age verification, there are economic considerations to balance. It is arguable that adult content providers have business models which are based upon the customers' ability to protect their anonymity. If users are unwilling to provide the details required to verify their age, this could have a negative impact on the level of revenue these businesses produce. The wider impact of this is highlighted by the fact that it has been estimated that over $3,000 is spent every second across the world on adult content (and that was in 2010!).

Further, the DEB will likely not apply to overseas providers. This appears to have two consequences:

  • Offshore-based providers will become more attractive; and
  • UK-based providers will incur substantial costs in implementing age verification.The cumulative effect is that UK-based providers could be inhibited when compared to their offshore competitors and, eventually, it may push them offshore.

The elephant in the room

Ultimately, the government's aim in putting forward the DEB is an admirable one – protecting children. However, solving a social problem through technological means is a difficult prospect. The elephant in the room is that, in reality, technically savvy young people will inevitably find ways around age verification systems. Further consideration should be given to investing in education in this area, empowering parents to be able to make their own decision on how to protect their children and to shifting public attitudes away from the age old problem of blaming "the internet".