UK Government Unveils Controversial Age Verification Guidelines for Adult Content

UK Government Unveils Controversial Age Verification Guidelines for Adult Content

LONDON — U.K. media regulator Ofcom, the government authority tasked by the recently enacted Online Safety Act with online content restriction enforcement, issued on Tuesday its first guidance to adult websites regarding age verification.

In an official statement the regulator announced that websites featuring sexual content “must introduce ‘age assurance’ through age verification, age estimation or a combination of both,” and that any such method must be “highly effective” at correctly determining whether or not a user is a minor.

“Effective access controls should prevent children from encountering pornographic content on that service,” Ofcom stated.

Ofcom described its own role in enforcing the new Online Safety Act as producing “guidance to help online pornography services to meet their legal responsibilities, and to hold them to account if they don’t.”

“Our draft guidance sets strict criteria which age checks must meet to be considered highly effective; they should be technically accurate, robust, reliable and fair,” the regulator explained.

Suggested acceptable age verification methods include: open banking (visitors to adult sites consent to their bank sharing information with the porn provider to confirm they are over 18); photo identification matching (visitors to adult sites upload photo ID such as a driver’s license or passport, which is then compared to an image of the user “at the point of uploading”); facial age estimation through some unspecified manner of software; mobile network operator age checks (default porn filters that users must opt out of); credit cards checks (every visitor to an adult site has to share credit card information with adult sites they visit, which then have to forward it through a payment processor to a bank or financial institution); and some form of digital identity wallet.

Ofcom specifically noted it does not consider self-reporting by the user, such as clicking on a button reading “I am 18,” to be an acceptable age verification method.

“Groups that fail to adhere to the rules could be fined up to 10% of annual global revenue, be blocked from operating in the UK or face criminal liability for their named executives,” the Financial Times explained.

Ofcom Director of Online Safety Gill Whitehead told the Financial Times that the goal of the new policies is to target “pornography that can be quite violent and quite aggressive” so it will not be accessible to minors browsing the internet.

“The act is very clear that that experience must change,” she said.

Serious Concerns About Privacy, Chilling of Free Speech

As XBIZ has been reporting, virtually all online privacy and digital rights groups worldwide have expressed serious concerns about the Online Safety Act and Ofcom’s increased content censorship powers under it.

Abigail Burke, of digital rights nonprofit Open Rights Group, told the Financial Times that guidelines unveiled Tuesday “create serious risks to everyone’s privacy and security.”

The potential consequences of data being leaked, Burke added, “are catastrophic and could include blackmail, fraud, relationship damage and the outing of people’s sexual preferences in very vulnerable circumstances.”

During the protracted, years-long process leading to the current version of the Online Safety Act, free speech advocates have repeatedly pointed out that it will officially classify and effectively censor any content deemed “harmful” or “pornographic” by the politicians who happen to be in power in the U.K. at any given time.

Though termed a “constitutional monarchy,” the U.K. has no written constitution and no equivalents to the U.S. Bill of Rights, First Amendment or codified Section 230 protections.

The law grants broad powers to the politicians and bureaucrats appointed to Ofcom, to target material they consider “harmful,” essentially reestablishing content-based state censorship in the U.K.

“There is concern the bill will lead to a mass age-gating of the UK internet as web services seek to shrink their liability by forcing users to confirm they are old enough to view content that might be deemed inappropriate for minors,” TechCrunch reported when the legislation finally cleared the House of Lords in September.

Lawrence Walters of the Walters Law Group, an industry attorney and First Amendment expert, told XBIZ in October that the Online Safety Bill “threatens free expression and undermines the security of private online communications.”

The impact on adult content creators and online platforms, Walters clarified, “remains uncertain, and highly dependent on how Ofcom decides to interpret and enforce the new provisions. Adult content may be in the crosshairs of regulatory enforcement.”

Industry attorney Corey Silverstein, of Silverstein Legal, added that although the Online Safety Act claims to make the U.K. “the safest place in the world to be online,” it is in fact a dramatic overreach into censorship, impinging upon privacy and free speech.

“Online platforms are now going to have to make very difficult decisions, with some platforms already promising to geoblock U.K. users altogether and to stop offering their services there,” Silverstein explained. “For those online platforms who choose to continue offering products and services in the U.K., there most definitely will be necessary changes to their platform and procedures in order to remain in compliance” and avoid exorbitant, business crippling fines.

A Baroness to Survey Online Porn

Earlier this year, the weakened Tory government of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was pressured by hardline conservatives in his own party to address adult content through the Online Safety Act.

After years of delays, the Sunak government made the controversial bill a priority, seeking to hand a victory to social conservatives, religious crusaders and SWERF activists. Those groups have been conducting a moral panic campaign around “harmful content” — which for many of them includes all porn — through the U.K. media, marketing the bill as a “save the women and children” measure while disregarding or minimizing privacy and technical issues.

In July, Sunak also ordered a review of all legislation relating to pornography, online and off, to ensure that it is “fit for purpose.”

Last week, the Conservative government indicated it was moving forward with this initiative, and appointed a member of the unelected House of Lords, the Baroness Gabby Bertin, to assess the “prevalence and impact” of what the current government considers to be illegal, violent or extreme pornography. Past definitions have been shifting and imprecise, often encompassing simulated role-play, kink scenarios and other content performed by consenting adults.

Bertin is best known as a close associate of former conservative prime minister David Cameron, for whom she acted as spokesperson. Bertin has already issued a statement in her new role, asserting that “the damaging impact that extreme pornography is having on society cannot be allowed to continue unchecked.”

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