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Age verification: Credit cards, classism and social exclusion

Posted at 13:36 on 11 May 2016 by Pandora / Blake

Tags: age verification, AV consultation, censorship, credit cards, Facebook, freedom of speech, media, politics, porn, privacy, surveillance, technology

Why would anyone use an alias?

Response to the Government consultation on Child Safety Online: Age Verification for Pornography

1: Evidence of Harm

2: Sex education

3: Privacy, surveillance and freedom of speech

4. Credit cards, classism and social exclusion

Most methods of age verification assume certain privileges which marginalise and exclude adults on low incomes, those at risk of violence for whom it would be unsafe to share their passport names, and those in unstable accommodation.

The most common method for age verification, with currently available technology, is for the site visitor to enter their credit card details to confirm that they are over 18. This often operates as part of a paywall but can function separately, with the card details being checked but not actually charged. Age verification for online porn is already mandated on UK-based adult websites, with credit cards the only method of age verification accepted by ATVOD - and (since ATVOD folded in January 2016) by their parent body Ofcom, who have taken over sole regulatory responsibility. Debit cards are not considered acceptable proof that a porn site visitor is over 18 - in fact this was one of the gotchas under which my site was ruled against last year. 

The reason that debit cards are not considered acceptable is that banks give debit cards to under 18s. However, credit cards aren't proof that someone is over 18 either, as prepaid credit cards which are accepted by most online payment processors can be bought with cash from high street shops such as WH Smiths without having to submit any proof of age. In the US, it's possible to anonymously buy prepaid credit cards with coins from street vending machines. And as Myles Jackman has noted, children between fourteen and eighteen can be added to an adult guarantor’s account as an additional cardholder.

As well as being an ineffective prove of age, relying on credit cards carries multiple social implications. Not every adult over 18 has a credit card, or wishes to have one; some do not have the financial security to commit to regular repayments, or would not pass the credit check required to get one; some might be in precarious housing circumstances without the required proof of address. Others may simply manage their finances well, and prefer to avoid using a credit card which will cost them interest.

In practice, relying on credit cards to perform age checking on adult websites maintains a class hierarchy: adults who are financially stable and affluent enough to maintain credit cards are legally entitled to look at explicit content, and adults who lack those privileges are not. This kind of snobbery, where pornography is considered suitable fare for the aristocracy but not for the working class, echoes the trial of Lady Chatterley's Lover, in which Mervyn Griffith-Jones famously asked the court whether "you would even wish your wife or servants to read" the accused book. In the history of the British class system some adults have always been considered more adult than others.

Social restrictions also arise from relying on other forms of legal ID. Passports, for instance, cost £82 to renew, and they need renewing every ten years. Not every adult over the age of 18 has one, wishes to have one, or can afford to have one, particularly if they lack the means to travel internationally. Some have suggested using the electoral register or driving licenses - but again, these are not compulsory, and would likewise exclude adults in unstable housing, who move house a lot, or who have good reasons to not want their name and address on a public database.

Any age verification system that requires the viewer to give their legal name - either to a website directly, or to a third party age verification service - puts their privacy at risk. Many people have completely legitimate reasons to wish not to associate their online activities with their legal name, such as transgender individuals, or survivors of domestic violence.

The idea of an anonymous age checking service - one that could somehow verify the age of the site visitor without needing to know their legal name - sounds good in theory, but unfortunately it doesn't yet exist. At this point in the development of the technology, age verification services either have to rely on a third party maintaining a “porn database”, which carries unjustifiable risk of privacy breaches, or on speculative technology that hasn't been built yet. For instance, I have heard it suggested that social media algorithms might provide age data without revealing a user's identify; but even if this software had been developed (which it hasn't), the idea falls apart on closer inspection: Facebook have a famously poor history with their “real name” policy that has penalised artists, performers, transgender people and abuse survivors; and many people attempting to operate pseudonymously on Facebook and Google have been forced to upload photo ID to prove their identity. No sensible person concerned with privacy would trust Facebook or Google to respect their pseudoynm - or, indeed, handle their porn viewing data.

Likewise, technology that allows users to securely verify their age by logging in to third party services, such as their mobile phone operator, has been discussed but not yet developed. It is normally considered sensible to develop technology first; then test it in real world scenarios to see whether it operates as intended and whether it is open to misuse; and then, and only then, consider whether its use should be legally mandated. 

Technological questions lie at the heart of this proposal. What identity services provide data to facilitate the age check? What databases are maintained? Who owns or has access to that data? What security is put in place to protect the data from misuse? What privacy and anonymity is offered to the user? The problem with the proposed model for age verificagtion is that a reliable, secure service which would protect user privacy does not exist. The only workable age verification methods currently available depend on connecting the user's porn browsing history to some form of legal identification, such as a credit card, passport or electoral roll information.

Processes such as age checking are highly sensitive, and privacy in such cases is often breached by accident, by hackers, or even by the police and intelligence services. There is no secure, reliable, independent age verification system which does not risk loss of privacy by sharing personal details, or risk fraud by sharing financial account information. The proposals blithely assume that such a technology will magically become available as soon as its use is legally mandated. This is extraordinarily naive.

It is backwards to the point of absurdity to mandate the use of technology that has not yet been developed or tested. Until truly anonymous age verification is possible, which does not depend on tracking or recording the viewer’s legal name, financial details or web browsing history, the proposed legislation is unworkable.

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