A big but solvable problem

The great majority of social media sites say that 13-year-olds may use their services but because few, if any, do any kind of age verification we know that 75% of all 10-12-year-olds in the UK are on them. However, on Twitter and Tumblr, for example, there is a phenomenal amount of hardcore porn published by individual account holders. For practical purposes, it can be viewed by anyone.

There is no justification for a site that specifies 13 as its minimum age to provide ready access to 18+ material, and if the same site also knows that in fact large numbers of sub-13s are customers their position is completely indefensible.

We cannot let the Digital Economy Bill pass into law without addressing this.  It begins its Committee stage in the House of Lords this week.

As it stands larger commercial porn sites will be required to introduce age verification to limit access to over 18s – that’s brilliant – but everyone else, in particular social media sites such as Twitter and Tumblr, escape any such requirement. Without more, we may, therefore, end up driving kids away from the humungous porn publishers who operate through their own sites straight into the virtual clutches of porn merchants who operate via other people’s platforms.

My suggestion is that where the proposed new Regulator identifies accounts or services that persistently publish pornography on a significant scale (proportionality is important) via any social media site, service or platform the Regulator should have the power to require the owner of the site, service or platform either to delete the material or the account or put it behind a robust age verification gateway. The whole site or service would never be blocked or restricted.

Some social media sites or services have a facility to allow account holders to indicate that their content is “adult”. They may even provide a way to restrict access to it but if these measures can be ignored or circumvented with a  few mouse clicks, they don’t count. If the profile is attracting a large enough volume of hits it qualifies.

Does my idea break with a core principle of the Digital Economy Bill, namely that the publisher must be commercial? Not necessarily because if the publisher is operating at the required scale it is exceptionally likely there is a commercial component in there somewhere even if it isn’t instantly apparent. But the key point has to be scale.