Age verification update

Brexit madness is intensifying (and I didn’t think that was possible) so today’s media coverage of yesterday’s announcement by the Government of a delay in implementing age verification has not been anything like it would have been in more normal times. However, judging by the numbers of people who have been in touch with me to express outrage I would say this is definitely not over yet.

What media coverage there has been is saying  either that the Government has, variously, “dropped the plan because they didn’t think it would work“, or it has “dropped the plan because of privacy concerns”, or some combination of the two.  Neither of those things are in the Government’s official statement.

This suggests someone in officialdom is briefing against (as they are describing it)  “the previous Government’s policy”. Alternatively or in addition old enemies of the policy have been jumping in with their theories  and interpretations which, in reality, are a form of wish they hope will transform into a self-fulfilling prophecy. The fact that some journalists report these biased theories and interpretations as if they were fact is disappointing but not surprising.

Urgent questions in Parliament this morning

This morning a dozen or so Members of Parliament were on their feet questioning the Minister (Matt Warman) about the change of policy.

Some of the responses from the Minister were extremely positive. If you are interested you will be able to read the whole exchange in Hansard when it comes out later today but here are the highlights:

  1. Age verifiction is not being dropped.
  2. It will continue to be one important tool among several that will be used to protect children in the online space under the wider umbrella of the “duty of care”. That is the centrepiece of the Online Harms White Paper (OHWP)
  3. The range of companies that will be affected by the duty of care is to be expanded well beyond those caught by the Digital Economy Act 2017. Specifically social media companies were referenced, Twitter in particular. The implication of this was that they too may need to engage with age verification. Under the “old” arrangements they wouldn’t have been, and true enough we always saw that as a weakness.
  4. While it was acknowledged that responding to the OHWP may be a longer process the Minister seemed to suggest the age verification aspects could be brought forward within a faster timeframe.
  5. Who the Regulator will be was not mentioned but the Minister did say that the BBFC would remain as part of the architecture because of their undisputed expertise in classifying content.

None of this need have caused a delay

Two points :

  1. Accepting everything at face value, you still cannot get around the fact that systems to protect children from online pornography were in place and ready to go. They could have been triggered and be in force before Christmas. If issues then arose that needed correction or adjustment they would have been based on actual experience.
  2. The problem is, particularly with all the briefing that has been going on, few people will feel inclined to accept anything at face value. They will worry the Government is in full retreat on age verification, simply taking defensive PR measures in the hope it will soon be quietly forgotten.

It won’t be.

The UK’s reputation as a world leader in online child protection has taken a big hit. But far worse than that kids will remain exposed to stuff that will harm them. That could have been avoided or substantially reduced.

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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