I don't endorse age verification

Posted at 10:12 on 25 Jan 2018 by Pandora / Blake

Tags: age verification, AgeID, Digital Economy Act, freedom of expression, MindGeek, privacy, security, sex education, young people

So you'll have noticed that I've been spending a lot of time campaigning around age verification, and working to mitigate the harms threatened by Section 3 of the Digital Economy Act. I've been giving talks and interviews, meeting members of the DCMS, lobbying Parliamentarians and speaking with companies who are preparing age verification software, to advise them around privacy and security. (This work is funded by my Patreon supporters - and if you believe in what I'm doing, every contribution is appreciated.)

This work puts me in something of a conflicted position. I don't endorse age verification as a policy; I think it's poorly conceived, a solution looking for a problem. It rejects the results of the government's public consultation, in which more respondents answered responded against age verification than in favour. It's based on false claims - that young children regularly 'accidentally' stumble across online porn and suffer terrible psychological damage as a result - based on shoddy evidence that does not meet peer-reviewed standards.

On the basis of these arguments and more I've argued against age verification as a strategy since it was first proposed. Nonetheless, the Digital Economy Act became law last year and age verification will be enforced very soon – on 27th April in fact, if the announced deadline is upheld. In its current form, it's a hugely problematic policy. Not only is it poorly implemented, and full of ambiguities and inconsistencies, but there are well-documented concerns over privacy and security which must be taken seriously. I've outlined risks around data collection and storage, possible identity theft, data leaks or breaches, and malicious misuse of data for advertising or profiteering, to name a few – would you want a list of porn sites you have visited saved under your email address somewhere?

The most chilling outcome of age verification hinges on MindGeek’s involvement and their potentially market-leading software AgeID. AgeID could potentially give MindGeek access to a unique new seam of profitable data: information about what porn sites AgeID users log into across the worldwide web. MindGeek won't see the document you use to prove your age, but they will know your email address and password; data that they have repeatedly allowed to be hacked in the past. And there is nothing to stop them using the browsing data the system will allow them to collect, to increase the effectiveness of their advertising algorithms - which is, after all, how they make money.

Porn users worldwide, therefore, are heavily motivated to find safer software from companies without a profit motive to collect and store sensitive data, but whose main business aim is to provide safe, effective age verification tools. I have been contacted by several companies who are in the process of developing such software, and I have been happy to advise them on the privacy needs of site users, and the business needs of small site owners. I've also helped to connect them with security experts who are better placed than I to comment on the robustness of the proposed technology.

I'm not in a position yet to endorse any particular AV product, as I want to see the results of external technology audits to reassure me that the products match the promises. And with implementation less than four months away, most AV products are likely to launch close to the deadline, leaving site owners which little time to make a decision about which to use. I would, therefore, love to release what product information I can a little earlier, to help people make informed choices. It is in this spirit that I have been researching the providers who are working in the field of AV development, and encouraging those who seek to offer a service that protects user privacy, does not collect browsing data, and is affordable for site owners. However, my support of these goals - and my possible endorsement, should a product emerge that fulfils them - should not be mistaken as my endorsement of age verification as a policy.

Opponents of age verification have a dilemma, and this is where I find myself. Do we work with AV providers to help make the software better and more secure, preserve privacy to some extent, promote affordable solutions that will help small businesses stay open, and somewhat mitigate the harms of this disastrous policy? By doing so, do we potentially facilitate the success of a policy we disagree with, allowing the government to lay claim to it and feel justified for pushing the legislation through in the first place? The alternative is to sit back and allow age verification to fail while saying "I told you so" - but then the risks are huge: the sensitive sexual data of millions of internet users out there, inevitably hacked and leaked into the public domain, leading to incalculable personal harm, and potential loss of life.

I don't endorse age verification. But with people’s lives at risk, especially people with more marginalised sexualities who risk suffering of homophobia and transphobia, I can't in good conscience sit back and let the worst case scenario unfold. I have therefore decided to support the development of better age verification solutions ("the least shit option", to quote security expert Alec Muffett in one meeting I attended) , whilst being clear that I still strongly oppose age verification on principle.

Mandatory age verification for online porn is a freedom-diminishing, over-reaching technological response to a social problem which is misreported, and to the extent it does exist, is far better solved by improving the quality and availability of free sex education for children and adults. I remain in favour of transparency, visibility and freedom of information, and against legislation which acts to demean and shame people for their sexual desires. There is no such thing as effective abstinence-based sex education, and I believe that we should be supporting young people to learn about sex in a safe way at the age that they are ready. This legislation is borne out of an anti-porn agenda which erases the consensual, positive dimensions of sexual expression, and hopes to dissuade adults from accessing porn by making it harder to do so. Since I cannot stop it happening, I am working to make it a bit less shit: but I do not support it.

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