UK regulators put onus on porn sites to check users’ ages

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Pornography websites must strengthen their age verification measures and use tools such as facial scanning software and credit card checks to protect children from their content, as part of the UK’s tough new online safety regime.

Ofcom, the UK’s media regulator tasked with enforcing the Online Safety Act, on Tuesday issued guidance to porn websites, forcing them to introduce stricter technical measures to ensure that their users are over the age of 18. Some websites are no more stringent than asking users whether they are over the age of 18.

Groups that fail to adhere to the rules could be fined up to 10 per cent of annual global revenue, be blocked from operating in the UK or face criminal liability for their named executives.

The UK’s legislation, many years in the making, is seen as among the strongest online regulations in the world, with Ofcom’s new guidance forming its first step in holding companies to account for breaches of the law.

“The heart of the Online Safety Act is around children continuing to enjoy the internet but doing so safely,” Gill Whitehead, Ofcom’s director of online safety, told the Financial Times.

“Children [are] seeing pornography that can be quite violent and quite aggressive,” she added. “The act is very clear that that experience must change.”

The average age at which children first encounter online pornography is 13, according to research by the children’s commissioner this year. However, 27 per cent come across it at 11.

Ofcom’s guidance said that age-assurance methods, which also include user information from banks and photo ID matches, must be “accurate, robust, reliable and fair”.

Facial age estimation, in which a user’s face is scanned to estimate their age, is also on the UK regulator’s list of suggestions. This type of software, however, has been criticised for lacking accuracy, with a greater degree of errors on non-white faces.

“There’s a lot of investment going into this area, and [it is being] improved upon all the time,” said Whitehead. “For example, in bias, there are increasing steps to make sure that the training data sets used are using diverse data.”

Critics, including the Open Rights Group and the Digital Policy Alliance, an internet and technology sector think-tank, argue age verification will create databases containing highly sensitive information that could expose individuals if leaked or hacked.

“Ofcom’s proposed guidelines create serious risks to everyone’s privacy and security,” said Abigail Burke of the Open Rights Group. 

“The potential consequences of data being leaked are catastrophic and could include blackmail, fraud, relationship damage and the outing of people’s sexual preferences in very vulnerable circumstances.”

However, Iain Corby, executive director at the Age Verification Providers Association, a trade body for suppliers of age-assurance technologies, said data protection laws prevent this.

“Understandably, no one wants to give a porn site their personal data,” he said. “Our members are tightly regulated and have done over a billion online age checks without any data breaches because we don’t create any new central databases of personal information.”

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