Alastair Graham: Web age checks have only one aim – to protect children

Studies show online pornography can be damaging to young peoples mental health. Picture: PAStudies show online pornography can be damaging to young peoples mental health. Picture: PA
Studies show online pornography can be damaging to young peoples mental health. Picture: PA
While the internet undoubtedly offers innumerable ­benefits to our society, it also has the potential to cause huge issues.

Key amongst these is the possibility of minors stumbling across material such as pornography, which studies show can be damaging to young ­people’s mental health. The NSPCC, for example, recently cited widespread confusion over what constitutes “normal” intimate activity as a cause for increasing peer sexual abuse. Safeguarding children online, and helping to prevent them from viewing such material, is therefore of utmost importance.

New regulation under the Digital Economy aims to address this problem. From 15 July, it will be mandatory for all adult content websites to implement robust age verification on their digital platforms. For many consumers, there is a growing sense of confusion around the law. How will it work in reality? Will it be a widespread ‘porn ban’? What does it mean for data protection?

Let’s look at the facts behind some of these questions.

How will it work?

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Whenever a UK IP address attempts to access a website with age-restricted content, the user will have to verify they are over 18. They will not be able to view explicit content until they have proven their age.

The onus of implementing such checks will fall on individual ­pornographic websites. Given that the government has not created its own verification system for websites to use, operators will need to choose from a number of different age-checking software services on the market.

There are variations between suppliers with regards to how each company will verify customers. AgeChecked, for example, works by allowing customers to confirm their age securely via an anonymous username and password. In order to get the username and password, users must first age verify themselves. They can choose from a range of methods, utilising a mobile app, credit card or driving licence.

Each time the user logs on to the website in question, they will not have to reverify in order to access it. Instead, they simply sign in as normal. This way, compliant age checks can be carried out without disrupting the user’s journey.

There are three key myths:

1. “My data will be hacked or leaked”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the incoming legislation has triggered privacy fears. Will porn companies be able to link people’s identities to their porn preferences? This is a very valid concern.

The only surefire way to avoid highly sensitive data leaking is to make sure that such data is not ­created in the first place. In this respect, it’s vital that all age verification systems are third-party providers (and not in any way affiliated with the porn sites themselves.)

AgeChecked never stores ­personal information on its users and ­credentials are ­anonymised. When a user tries to access an age-restricted website or service, the website will only receive a simple ‘pass’ or ‘fail’ alert – nothing more.

2. “It’s just a censorship tool”

The whole point of the new age verification regulations is simply to prevent children from stumbling across pornographic content; these measures will not have any control over what content adults can and cannot view.

3. “People can bypass the system”

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Online age verification works by implementing barriers that make it as difficult as possible for young children to stumble upon inappropriate or damaging adult content.

There will always be a minority that tries to undermine these barriers. That’s why it’s so important that age-gating software does not work in silo; but rather plays a role in an overall solution. Underage access to adult content is a problem that needs support from parents and government to be properly tackled.

Looking ahead

Overall, while it is easy to become fixated on the pros and cons of the upcoming porn ban, what people need to remind themselves of is the core purpose of this legislation – to protect and prevent vulnerable youngsters from needlessly ­stumbling across this graphic, damaging content.

Alastair Graham, chair of the Age Verification Providers Association and CEO of AgeChecked.

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