Online Safety Act May Require AI Facial Scans

Users could have their faces scanned by artificial intelligence-powered age-estimation tools in order to view pornography online, according to draft guidance from media regulator Ofcom published on Tuesday ahead of the implementation of the Online Safety Act.

The Online Safety Act, which became law in October, requires sites and platforms that display or publish pornographic content to ensure children under 18 are unable to encounter the material on their service.

A 2012-2022 study by the Children’s Commissioner found children on average see pornography at 13.

Ofcom suggested several possible approaches for how sites would be required to comply with the law and said they would be expected to offer “robust protection to children”.

Image credit: Pexels

‘Robust protection’

“Regardless of their approach, we expect all services to offer robust protection to children from stumbling across pornography, and also to take care that privacy rights and freedoms for adults to access legal content are safeguarded,” said Ofcom chief executive Melanie Dawes.

Pornography publishers and others have said some of the methods suggested for age checks could expose users to privacy risks.

Ofcom said its suggestion of the use of AI to verify age would require the user to take a photo of themselves with a device and upload it.

The method could require additional checks for users who look young.

Breach risk

The proposed guidance also included photo identification matching, which would also require a photo to be taken and uploaded in real-time as well as the upload of a photo ID such as a passport or driving licence, and credit card checks.

Other possible methods include checking whether the user had previously had age restrictions removed from a mobile phone or the use of digital ID wallets that store a user’s proof of age which could be shared with multiple sites.

The Institute of Economic Affairs, a free market-oriented think tank, said mandatory age verification threatened user privacy and could expose users to breaches and abuse if more third parties hold their sensitive data.

Aylo, the owner of online pornography publisher Pornhub, has said it believes age checks should take place on devices in the form of parental controls on phones and computers.


Ofcom said it expects to publish its final guidance in early 2025 before the law takes effect later that year.

The law has proven controversial throughout the process of its formulation, with apps such as Signal and WhatsApp threatening to quit the UK over a provision they say could force them to scan messages for illegal content.

Matthew Broersma

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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