The UK communications regulator Ofcom, tasked with enforcing the UK’s controversial Online Safety Bill, has unveiled its proposals for age checks to stop children accessing online porn.

Ofcom published its proposals for acceptable age-verification methods for porn websites, so as to comply with the Online Safety Act that recently received Royal Assent in October.

The passing of the controversial Online Safety Bill was a bitter blow to privacy campaigners and big name tech firms, both of whom have consistently opposed the legislation.

Online Safety Act

Big name tech firms were alarmed at the provisions in the bill for creating an encryption backdoor. In March WhatsApp and Signal said they would rather pull out of the UK than comply with the act’s requirements.

Companies could be fined up to 10 percent of their global turnover if they fail to adhere to the regulations, or Ofcom could potentially block the websites from being accessible in the UK.

Executives of those websites could also be jailed.

But another highly controversial aspect of the Online Safety Act was the requirement for age verification to access online pornographic websites.

Under the Online Safety Act, pornography websites that have UK users, or target UK users, will be required to use age verification to ensure that children are not able to encounter their content.

Ofcom claimed its research has shown that the average age at which children first see online pornography is 13 – although nearly a quarter come across it by age 11 (27 percent), and one in ten as young as 9 (10 percent). Additionally, nearly 8 in 10 youngsters (79 percent) have encountered violent pornography before turning 18.

The law stipulates that porn websites, apps must introduce ‘age assurance’ – through age verification, age estimation or a combination of both, in order to prevent children from encountering pornographic content on that service.

Age verification proposals

Ofcom has therefore issued guidance to help online pornography services to meet their legal responsibilities, and to hold them to account if they don’t.

The Ofcom draft guidance sets strict criteria which age checks must meet, in order to be considered highly effective. Acceptable age verification measures include:

  • Open banking. A user can consent to their bank sharing information confirming they are over 18 with the online pornography service. Their full date of birth is not shared.
  • Photo identification matching. Users can upload a photo-ID document, such as a driving licence or passport, which is then compared to an image of the user at the point of uploading to verify that they are the same person.
  • Facial age estimation. The features of a user’s face are analysed to estimate their age.
  • Mobile network operator age checks. Some UK mobile providers automatically apply a default content restriction which prevents children from accessing age-restricted websites. Users can remove this restriction by proving to their mobile provider that they are an adult, and this confirmation is then shared with the online pornography service.
  • Credit cards checks. In the UK, credit card issuers are obliged to verify that applicants are over 18 before providing them with a credit card. Approval by the bank can be taken as evidence that the user is over 18.
  • Digital identity wallets. Using a variety of methods, including those listed above, users can securely store their age in a digital format, which the user can then share with the online pornography service.

Ofcom said that weaker age-checks won’t be accepted, which include a self-declaration of age; online payment methods that don’t require a person to be 18; and general terms, disclaimers or warnings.

“In addition, we specify that pornographic content must not be visible to users before, or during, the process of completing an age check,” said Ofcom. “Nor should services host or permit content that directs or encourages children to attempt to circumvent age and access controls.”

Too accessible?

“Pornography is too readily accessible to children online, and the new online safety laws are clear that must change,” said Dame Melanie Dawes, Ofcom’s chief executive. “Our practical guidance sets out a range of methods for highly effective age checks. We’re clear that weaker methods – such as allowing users to self-declare their age – won’t meet this standard.”

“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 Dawes.

Ofcom said that all age assurance methods are subject to the UK’s privacy laws, including those concerning the processing of personal data, which is hardly reassuring in these days of constant data leaks and security breaches.

But Ofcom did not mention that the Australian government abandoned similar age verification proposals because of concerns over privacy and security.

Ofcom expects to publish its final guidance in early 2025, after which the Government will bring these duties into force.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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