The UK is to implement a part of the Digital Economy Act 2017 which requires some websites to implement age verification checks for its users. The age verification requirement, also dubbed the “porn block”, will now come into force on 15 July this year, legally requiring commercial porn websites to implement age verification checks. However, it has been met with strong criticism and a number of concerns in relation to how it will work in practice have been raised.
This is not the only measure aimed at protecting children online. Due to the prevalence of children using the internet and the amount of time they spend online, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) introduced specific provisions intended to enhance the protection of children’s personal data. For example, the GDPR requires the provision of age-appropriate privacy notices for children and states explicitly that specific protection is required where children’s personal data is used for marketing purposes.
In addition to specific protection children are afforded under the GDPR, the UK Government has, since 2015, promised to introduce an age-verification requirement for online pornography websites in order to address the risk of harm to children online. This was largely in response to concerns that young people are able to access inappropriate content too easily.
Age verification for pornographic websites
Under the Digital Economy Act 2017, online commercial pornography services available in the UK will have to carry out age-verification checks to prevent individuals under the age of 18 from accessing adult content. The decision to implement such a law was heavily based on a report conducted by the NSPCC that claimed that over 50% of children and teenagers had accessed pornographic content online by accident. However, the methods by which such websites will be verifying the ages of their visitors has divided opinion.
MindGeek, the owner of a number of the world’s most popular pornographic websites including Pornhub, has created software known as AgeID. In creating an account, a user is able to then verify their age by providing their passport, credit card or driving licence details or their phone number and verifying through SMS. Whilst this would indeed restrict access to under 18’s, one of the main concerns that has been raised relates to the database in which this information is stored becoming a prime target for hackers.
Potential target for hackers
Thinking back to 2015 when the Ashley Madison scandal was a prominent news story, it’s clear to see the potential for a UK wide database of individual’s pornographic viewing habits to become a target for hacking. This can be highlighted when considering the scale of the Ashley Madison hack which saw $11 million was paid out in compensation to the roughly 33 million people that it affected, a far smaller number than the 64 million daily visitors that Pornhub attracted in 2017, of which the UK was the second largest driver of traffic.
In an attempt to allay such concerns, the Government has stated that the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) has worked with a number of prominent cybersecurity firms, as well as the Information Commissioner’s Office and has come up with a strategy to demonstrate the safety of such verification websites. Specifically, systems that are deemed safe for potential security and privacy issues will display a green ‘AV’ badge, akin to the green padlock found on payment pages of trustworthy websites.
Ways around the block
In addition to the concerns regarding the safety of data, another prominent issue raised by critics is that the block simply will not work as there are numerous ways to get around the block without having to provide details.
Firstly, as mentioned above, the block only applies to commercial porn websites so other websites such as Twitter and Reddit, both of which contain adult content, will not be blocked. Consequently, those wishing to access porn will be able to do so with relative ease through different channels.
Secondly, the use of Virtual Private Networks (VPN’s) which mask your location by routing internet traffic through a different country can be used to circumvent the block which is only applicable to the UK.
Finally, it has been stated that newsagents and other local shops will sell what have become colloquially known as “porn passes”. These will take the form of a code that can be entered into the AgeID software to verify that the user is over 18, as it is believed that the user will have been asked for ID in the shop from which it is purchased. However, this is unlikely and similar to cigarettes and alcohol, individuals under the age of 18 wishing to purchase such products can ask others to do so on their behalf.
Whilst the intention of the porn block is commendable, the number of workarounds already identified such as the use of VPN’s, coupled with the inevitable creation of a centralised personal data store relating to such a taboo subject suggests that the benefits are likely to be outweighed by the risks.
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