two children at a laptop

Online porn age-verification scheme still not ready

28th Mar 2019 - James Mildred

The new age-verification scheme on commercial pornographic websites is still not ready, the Government has admitted.

It had been reported that the scheme would come into force on 1 April this year, but that no longer appears to be the case.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) responded to stories in the press that it would become operational on 1 April by simply saying a commencement date for the scheme would be announced ‘shortly’.

A DCMS spokesman added: “We are taking the time to get the implementation of the policy right and to ensure it is effective, and we will announce a commencement date shortly.”

CARE strongly supports the new age-verification scheme as a vital way of protecting young people from adult content online. It is important the scheme is implemented as soon as possible.

Why it matters

In a debate in the House of Lords recently, Baroness Kidron said “A child is a child until they reach maturity, not until the moment they reach for their smartphone.”

While we protect children and young people offline by putting age-restrictions on substances like alcohol and tobacco and give films age ratings based on what is suitable at different ages, the online world is largely unregulated. A child cannot buy pornographic content from a newsagent without proof of age but can stumble across online porn far too easily.

In 2016, a major NSPCC survey discovered it was more likely for young people to find explicit material accidently online, rather than to specifically seek it out. The survey also showed around 53% of 11-16-year olds had seen graphic content online and 94% had viewed adult content by the time they were just 14 years old.

Studies have shown that viewing porn can leave young people with unrealistic expectations about sex and relationships.

In this context, introducing age-verification online is not just logical, it is vital to protect young people from exposure to content that is intended to be for adults only. We protect young people offline in a variety of ways, age-verification is about extending that protection principle to the digital world as well.

How the new scheme will work

In 2017, Parliament voted to bring in new age verification (AV) measures to restrict children’s access to “adult-only” commercial pornographic websites through Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act (DEA) 2017.

A new, age-verification regulator has been created and in February 2018, Parliament agreed the regulator would be the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC).

Anyone who wishes to access porn on designated websites must prove they are 18 and over to do so. This will be done through a special, non-graphic landing page where users can upload official proof, be it a passport, driving licence or credit card.

If people do not wish to upload such information online, they have the option of buying a PortesCard from a local shop: "Once a card or voucher is purchased, its unique validation code must be activated via the Portes app within 24 hours before expiring."

Constant delays

Initially it was expected that the law would be implemented by April 2018. But in March last year, the timetable was pushed back until the end of the year.

When December 2018 came, it was then announced the scheme would be ready for early 2019. But now it seems like there will be fresh delays.

Wider concerns

CARE strongly supports the principle of age-verification. We worked closely with MPs and Peers to make sure the measures are as effective as possible.

However, we still have several concerns. Firstly, we remain concerned about how AV requirements will be enforced, especially in relation to how financial penalties will be managed, especially for overseas sites. Secondly, we are disappointed the AV regulations do not apply to social media sites like Instagram, Snapchat or Facebook.

Thirdly, there is a loophole in the law which means non-photographic images of children and violent pornography will not be behind the AV checks. We have worked with Baroness Howe and her Digital Economy Act 2017 (Amendment) (Definition of Extreme Pornography) Bill would close this loophole.

Finally, we want to see more research into the negative impact pornography addiction can have on adults, from loss of jobs and large sums of money, to relationship breakdown and stress. There is a tendency to focus almost exclusively on the damage pornography can do to children, but there is enough evidence to suggest its impact is felt by those over 18 as well. Further research would test the validity and extent of this link. 

Despite these concerns, we continue to believe that age-verification is vital means of protecting young people online and it is important that there are not further delays to implementation.

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