Age verification critiqued on Radio 4

Posted at 18:35 on 30 Jul 2017 by Pandora / Blake

Tags: age verification, Digital Economy Act, Digital Economy Bill, in the news, interviews, Matt Hancock, media

Photo of credit cards, one of the potential means of age verification mentioned by Digital Minister Matt Hancock

So while I was away this month, I got cited by a Radio 4 presenter.

I listened to the segment on the BBC website after a heads up from some kind folks on Twitter. You can listen to it here until Wed 16 August - the relevant section begins at 32:51. Presenter Eddie Mair was interviewing Matt Hancock, the Digital Minister, about the age verification policy enshrined in the Digital Economy Act 2017. Unfortunately, Matt Hancock didn't come across very well. He sounded bumbling and under-informed, unable to give any clear answers about how age verification will work in practice. After claiming that age verification won't require giving any identifying information, the only means of verifying your age that he was able to think of were a passport and credit card - both of which involve revealing your identity, and exclude many marginalised adults without access to these documents from being able to look at porn. Not only that, but it's in doubt whether credit cards will be accepted by the regulator as a compliant form of age verification, as it's possible for under 18s to have them. Clearly Matt Hancock hasn't spent much time looking into this.

The Government have set a deadline for all sites that can be accessed from the UK to install age verification software by April 2018. That's not far off - and yet even the Digital Minister still doesn't have a clear idea of how it will work, or what technologies are available.

After querying the efficacy of the policy, the presenter tells Matt Hancock, "I want to read you something Pandora Blake wrote. 'If we want to help young people stay safe online, we need to teach privacy skills and how to critique the media they will inevitably encounter online. We need to make sex education mandatory in schools – and we need it to answer the questions young people are asking, such as: how will I know when I’m ready to have sex? And when I am, how can I make my partner feel good? Attacking online porn is a cheap way to score political points – and it’s a distraction from the real issues.'"

This is the closing paragraph from my Guardian article about the impact of age verification - and even the Minister admitted he agreed with a lot of what I had to say. It gave me a warm glow, and I'm very glad that these points were being raised even while I was out of the country!

Thankfully, Technology and Digital Culture writer at the New Statesman Amelia Tait was available, and she made some excellent points, like:

  • The majority of households in the UK are childless, and yet this law will affect everyone.
  • Parents can - and should - take responsibility for stopping young children looking at porn.
  • Many parental controls already exist - but we also need to improve parental education in order to help young people stay safe online.

I would add to this that not only should parents take responsibility for stopping their children looking at porn, it is also the role of parents to talk to children about sex in an age appropriate way; and this includes discussing what they might see online, and building their resilience and understanding to help them respond to it critically.

Although I wasn't able to contribute I was very glad Amelia was, as she also made some salient points about privacy and proportionality: 

  • The lack of privacy provisions in the Digital Economy Act creates the very real risk of age verification technologies being misused to create a "digital footprint" of all your sexual preferences. This has huge implications for hacking and blackmail.
  • Ultimately, this policy is going to constrain the freedom of older people who don't know how to protect their privacy by setting up a VPN, while tech-savvy young people will still be able to look at whatever they want.
  • It's a disproportionate measure - and it sets an incredibly worrying precedent.

As well as the risk of data leaks or malicious hacks, I'm also very concerned about the data age verification software will be able to retain about users' porn viewing habits. There's nothing in the Act to prevent this data being stored and monetised to increase the market dominance of unethical companies. This legislation was intended to protect children from harm, and it would be an damning consequence if it instead permitted unscrupulous corporations to extend their monopoly at the expense of businesses  trying to do the right thing.

As it stands, it looks like age verification won't work for users, it won't work for site owners, and it won't stop under 18s from looking at porn. When it comes to digital policy, the Government continues to fail to listen to the warnings of experts, and to push through ineffective and unworkable laws.

I'm joining forces with the Open Rights Group and others to try and mitigate the harm that could result if age verification is implemented as badly as we fear. If you want to help, the best way is to join the Open Rights Group, and support my crowd-funding campaign to help us keep fighting for digital liberties and sexual freedom.

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