Does it matter than internet age verification has been dropped?

woman lit by red light

Friday, 1 November, 2019

In Britain, we have a long and rather unfortunate history of regarding anything to do with sex as being embarrassing.

Indeed, some people would argue that particular word shouldn’t even be used on family websites, preferring to hide beyond coy terms like “intimacy” or “adult matters”.

Over the centuries, we’ve hidden this national embarrassment behind Victorian table-leg covers, nudge-nudge comedy and fig-leaf artworks.

And our censorious attitude to anything of an adult nature was perhaps best demonstrated by Channel 4’s red triangle, which was used to indicate adult TV content in the mid-80s.

Despite almost three decades of the internet, we still have a titter-ye-not attitude to adult content online.

Sadly, this prudishness overshadowed an important debate earlier this year, about the possible introduction of internet age verification.

Act your age

For some time, the UK Government has been agitating for the introduction of age verification filters among ISPs.

The Digital Economy Act 2017 proposed that pornographic or other adult-oriented sites would automatically be blocked by every ISP serving customers in the United Kingdom.

Content would remain blocked unless users proved their age, to demonstrate they weren’t impressionable youngsters or vulnerable teenagers.

First mooted in 2015, internet age verification was scheduled to come into law last year, before suffering a series of unexpected delays.

In June of this year, it was postposed again til December, because the UK Government hadn’t informed the EU about its plans.

And now the proposals have been dropped altogether, as confirmed earlier this month by Nicky Morgan, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

Age verification will no longer form part of the Digital Economy Act.

What’s the problem?

On one hand, it’s shockingly easy for children to stumble across adult content online.

On sites like Twitter and Reddit, it’s only a hashtag search away.

On the other hand, campaigners argued that censoring selected content represented the thin end of a wedge where regulators and Government might ban or block more and more content.

There were also concerns that people registering to view adult content might have their details leaked to the public, either maliciously or accidentally.

Plus, a blanket ban could have meant social media sites were off-limits to teenagers. You can set up a Facebook account at 13, but you’d have had to be 18 to actually view it.

To avoid fines or criticism, ISPs may have become overly censorious, in an attempt to ensure their filters blocked every site containing potentially troublesome content.

This could have significantly impacted on many sites over and above the primary target of free-to-view porn streaming platforms.

Nobody has suggested children having easy access to adult content online is a good thing.

However, the Government’s proposed solution did resemble a rather blunt instrument.

In particular, their proposal that sites would be exempted if less than a third of their total content was pornographic bordered on the absurd.

There was no clarity around whether that figure of “a third” related to pages, files, total playback time, graphics or any other measure.

Nor was it clear who would monitor this ratio, or how, or even how frequently.

Have the proposals been dropped altogether?

Probably not.

In the statement that withdrew plans for internet age verification, Nicky Morgan committed to delivering it “through our proposed online harms regulatory regime”.

The Online Harms White Paper she referred to was published back in April, claiming to offer a “world-leading package of measures to keep UK [internet] users safe online”.

Like the Digital Economy Act, it proposes making ISPs and individual businesses more accountable for the safety of users – and children in particular.

An independent regulator will be created to tackle and penalise illegal activity, or anything which is deemed to be “harmful but not necessarily illegal”.

Where that line is drawn, and by whom, will doubtlessly become the subject of considerable disagreement.

Is consensual (yet extreme) pornography harmful but not illegal? What about journalism on sensitive topics like incest or terrorism? Could images or footage of drug-taking be covered?

Consultation on the Online Harms White Paper ended four months ago, but little has yet emerged about the enforcement powers of the new regulator, or the scope of its remit.

For now, at least, we are safe to browse whichever websites we wish – and without a red triangle in sight.

Neil Cumins author picture

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Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!

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