Another step forward for age verification


The Gambling Act, 2005, established a licensing system for companies that wish to run gambling web sites. To obtain an online operator’s licence, inter alia, companies must now demonstrate that they have a robust online method for verifying that all their customers are aged 18 or above.

At one level creating a licensing regime should never have been necessary. The legal position was always perfectly clear. Nobody should set up in the gambling business, online or off, if they don’t have the means to determine that their customers meet the law’s unambiguous age requirements.

However, the penalties for breach were tiny and enforcement relied principally on vastly overworked, under-resourced local government officials who were, in any event, uncertain about the jurisdictional issues which the internet was throwing up. It was only when the Gambling Act, 2005, came into force, when everyone was required to do it in order to obtain the licence, that things changed.

Whilst this may be a disappointing commentary on business ethics, it is perhaps also simply realistic. I guess many companies worried that if they volunteered, were first to introduce significant “obstacles” or changes to the sign in process, they might lose customers to their less fastidious rivals.

The law works!

Since the online licensing regime came into effect I have not heard of a single case where a child has beaten the system by doing what they used to do before when all that was required was a tick in a box to “confirm” they were over 18. This is what converted me to the cause of online age verification. It won’t solve all the ills of the internet, but it definitely solves some.

Having dealt with gambling, attention turned to the online sale of alcohol. Again, in many people’s view there was never any doubt about what the law required.


Anyone selling alcohol has to verify that the person they are selling it to is over 18 and they must do this at the point of sale, whether this be online or offline. The question of “serving” or delivering alcohol raises separate issues but the point of sale is also fundamental.

No one is compelled to sell or provide anything online, but if they choose to do so they ought to be able to do it in a way which will satisfy themselves and others that they are not regularly breaking the law and potentially harming children. Yet every time anyone looked at the online sale of alcohol the vendors were found wanting.

In May, 2009, Greenwich Council did test purchases online with Marks & Spencer, Oddbins, Laithwaites and Drinksdirect. They all delivered booze straight to the door of a 16 year old.

Several very famous retailers or their trade bodies refused to agree with the interpretation of the law I have just advanced. I can think of one High Street name in particular who not only flatly denied they were required to check the person’s age at the point of selling them alcohol online, they also told me their local Trading Standards Officers – the local government officials with the principal responsibility for enforcement – agreed with them! If you are a major employer in a given geographical area it is amazing how accommodating some local authorities can be.

Check on delivery? No.

In this particular case the company concerned told me they always age verified the sale of alcohol at the point of delivery and this got them off the age verification hook at the point of sale.

Picture the scene. You’re a truck driver.  You do deliveries for this well known company. Your bonus depends on how quickly you can offload your cargo and get back to base for another consignment. You get extra payments every time you come in with zero returns. Today you are delivering to the 15th floor of a high rise. Your vehicle is illegally parked so you can get close to the building to save time, or it is legally parked but liable to obstruct traffic. You knock on the door then ask the person who answers it to go and get their passport, or their driving licence or birth certificate before you hand over the package.

I don’t think so. Saying “We check at the point of delivery” in this instance was code for “we don’t do it at all”. The drivers in question  were directly employed by the company. They drove vans and wore clothes sporting the corporate livery. I spoke to the trade union that organized the drivers and they confirmed that what the company had told me, and here I use a technical term, was a lie.

I then spoke to several well known delivery firms. They all pretty much said the same thing: if they accept an item for delivery typically they just hand it over to whoever answers the door at the nominated address, sometimes a signature will be required sometimes it won’t, or there may be specific instructions about leaving the goods with a neighbour or beside the garden shed. And that’s it. No identity check or age verification.

Anyway, long story short, the new Government picked up on some work which the last one had started. They conducted a review and published the results in April of this year. Parts of it finally came into effect last week. Guess what? They endorsed my view.

Click here to see the entire document, but below is the relevant extract, taken from para 10.67 on page 87:

Licence holders should consider carefully what steps they are required to take to comply with the age verification requirements under the 2003 Act in relation to sales of alcohol made remotely. These include sales made online, by telephone and mail order sales, and alcohol delivery services. Each of these sales must comply with the requirements of the 2003 Act. The mandatory condition requires that age verification takes place before a person is served alcohol. Where alcohol is sold remotely (for example, online) or through a telephone transaction, the sale is made at this point…..Age verification measures (for example, online age verification) should be used to ensure that alcohol is not sold to any person under the age of 18. However, licence holders should also consider carefully what steps are appropriate to ensure that age verification takes place before the alcohol is served (i.e. physically delivered) to the customer…..

So what are we to make of companies which still do not deploy age verification when they sell alcohol online?

Asking for payment via a credit card emphatically does not meet the point: Mastercards and Visa cards, plus others, are lawfully available to persons of all ages. It is not a guarantee that a person is any particular age and the credit card companies very specifically say their cards should not be used as age verification tools.

Neither is it sufficient for firms selling alcohol to do what the gambling companies used to do i.e. ask the would-be purchaser to tick to say they are an adult. Equally a company cannot simply and unilaterally announce that “By confirming this order you are also confirming that you are aged 18 or more.”

Unless and until companies can do it right they should not do it at all.

About John Carr

John Carr is one of the world's leading authorities on children's and young people's use of digital technologies. He is Senior Technical Adviser to Bangkok-based global NGO ECPAT International and is Secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. John is now or has formerly been an Adviser to the Council of Europe, the UN (ITU), the EU and UNICEF. John has advised many of the world's largest technology companies on online child safety. John's skill as a writer has also been widely recognised.
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