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Late last year news started to emerge that several amends had been made to the already highly controversial Digital Economy Bill (DEB) including the requirements around ‘age verification’ on pornography websites.

The original plan was to include a note in the DEB to ensure the current optional ‘Parental Controls’ remained available to all customers following changes in EU legislation regarding net neutrality. However, the remit has expanded somewhat and now the DEB wants to implement a ‘tough age verification system’ on all websites displaying ‘adult content’ with ISPs required to block access to any such websites that are non-compliant.

We discuss whether or not this is necessary to effectively protect children from accessing pornography on the Internet or if it’s a slippery slope towards further censorship?

Whilst we all agree children must be protected from accessing ‘adult content’ on the Internet there are many concerns over these latest plans especially as (as usual) there is currently very little detail about how they will actually work in practice.

The main concerns

  1. How will it actually work?

The current legislation provides no detail about how the age verification system will actually work and there has been little to no industry consultation about it. The Bill also states this will be applied to all UK and overseas websites – how will that be enforced? How will they effectively prove the age of the user? What information will need to be gathered and how will that information be stored?

  1. Data storage and privacy

Which leads us to the second main concern, presumably to prove the age of the user, specific personal data will be required. How will this data be collected and securely stored? Who will have access to it? With the news continuously full of data leaks and security breaches recently this highly sensitive personal information about the sexual habits of potentially thousands and thousands of customers poses real concern. Imagine if that information got into the wrong hands!

  1. Potential for ‘mission creep’

Government discussions about the plans in the media have used the word ‘pornography’ yet in the Bill the terminology used is ‘adult content’ which is much wider reaching. Opponents of the Bill are concerned this could easily lead to ‘mission creep’ and further censorship. Similarly, discussions have already been held about the effect on social media sites such as Twitter and search engines such as Google if ‘safe search’ is disabled – where will it end?

  1. Circumvention

Like many of the Government’s plans for blocks and restricted access, these sites could still be easily accessible with just a little technical knowhow through things like VPNs, proxies, DNS changes etc. Let’s face it, kids are getting more and more tech savvy, so if anyone is going to know how to get around the blocks, it’s probably them.

  1. Cost

As there has been no industry consultation and we are unclear of the final details of how the age verification system will actually work there is also next to no idea of the cost implications of implementing, managing and enforcing this system.

Industry and privacy advocates concerns have also been echoed by the United Nations (UN) who raised concerns over “a lack of data sharing safeguards and potential damage to the vital right to privacy and freedom of expression”. Special rapporteur for the protection of human rights and freedom of expression, David Kaye has written an open letter to the Government stating:

“Therefore, while I am cognizant of the need to protect children against harmful content, I am concerned that the provisions under the bill are not an effective way for achieving this objective as they fall short of the standards of international human rights law. The bill contains insufficient procedures without adequate oversight, overly broad definitions and lack of data sharing safeguards that unduly interferes with the rights of freedom of expression and privacy.”

Lords want clarification too

The Bill has been passed by MPs (without a vote) and has now entered the committee stage which will examine the legislation in more detail. The House of Lords committee has already called for greater detail on how the age verification system will actually work. They argue in its current format the House are unable to ‘effectively scrutinise the legislation’.

Entanet’s Opinion

Whilst we applaud the Government’s commitment to protecting children from accessing unsuitable material online, we don’t agree that this latest age verification system is an effective solution. Perhaps we will be more supportive once the full details of how the system will work emerge but currently we have little faith that the Government even knows that information.

Website blocking policies such as this are well known for having accuracy issues where sites are incorrectly identified and blocked, plus the highly sensitive nature of the data required in these plans raises serious concerns. Similarly, the Government’s current terminology rings alarm bells over the potential for ‘mission creep’, leading to further censorship.

ISPs already provide optional parental controls to avoid children accessing inappropriate material. Statistics show that of those that do use the filters 97% found them useful – perhaps more emphasis should be given to educating parents on to the usefulness of these filters and encouraging their adoption than implementing a complex age verification system.

Have your say!

Do you think a new age verification system will effectively protect children online? Do you think the potential benefits of the system outweigh the concerns? Or do you share the concerns outlined in the article regarding effectiveness, privacy, data security etc? Have your say by leaving us a comment below.

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