UK to begin age checks for viewing online porn

From July 15, 2019, Britons who wants to watch an online porn site will have to submit official forms of identification to demonstrate that they are at least 18.
From July 15, 2019, Britons who wants to watch an online porn site will have to submit official forms of identification to demonstrate that they are at least 18.PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (NYTIMES) - Young Britons might not often struggle to be served a beer or a glass of wine, but soon they will need a "porn pass" or must otherwise prove that they are at least 18 to watch pornography online.

British lawmakers, concerned that teenagers faced few impediments accessing pornography on the Internet, approved a Bill in 2018 designed to prevent those younger than 18 from viewing X-rated sites.

So beginning July 15, anyone who wants to watch an online porn site will have to submit official forms of identification, including passports, driver's licences or credit card information, to demonstrate that they are at least 18.

They will also be able to go to designated shops to obtain what has already been dubbed a "porn pass".

"Adult content is currently far too easy for children to access online," said Ms Margot James, British minister for digital and creative industries.

"The introduction of mandatory age verification is a world first, and we've taken the time to balance privacy concerns with the need to protect children from inappropriate content."

Under the new law, the Digital Economy Act 2017, commercial providers of online pornography will be required to carry out the age verification checks.

 
 
 

Websites that breach the new regulations could be blocked in Britain or have their payment services withdrawn.

Critics have questioned the effectiveness of the new regulations, saying that teenagers could still stumble upon pornography on social media platforms like Reddit or Imgur, which have been exempted from the requirements because pornography accounts for less than a third of their content.

Virtual Private Networks, known as VPNs, which will remain legal in Britain, could also help users bypass the restrictions by setting their apparent locations to other countries.

Privacy and freedom-of-expression advocates have raised concerns that the restrictions will enable private companies to create a large database of pornography users and their sexual preferences that, if leaked, could result in surveillance and privacy violations.

"I am concerned that the age verification provisions give the government access to information of viewing habits and citizen data," wrote Mr David Kaye, UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, in an open letter to the British government.

"Identity disclosure requirements in law allow authorities to more easily identify persons, eradicating anonymous expression," he wrote.

Users are also at risk of being profiled, as pornography sites will be able to choose which third-party provider they use for age checking.

One of the most popular services, Age ID, which has been used in Germany since 2015, is owned by Mindgeek, a dominant company in online pornography, which could pose a conflict of interest.

Mindgeek said its age verification service is encrypted and would keep only "standard technical data" and not the personal data of its users.

The British Board of Film Classification, the independent regulator responsible for ensuring compliance with the new laws, said it would introduce a voluntary certification scheme that would assess and certify the data security standards of age verification providers.

Embarrassingly, the government announced its schedule for the measure in an e-mail to about 300 journalists that exposed all their email addresses to each recipient, the BBC reported.

The government apologised for the error and said it would evaluate whether it was a breach of data protection law.