Age verification on the move. Porn is the target

Yesterday’s Daily Telegraph carried a great piece in which Rachel de Souza, England’s new Children’s Commissioner, makes clear her ambitions for age verification in general but in particular in respect of pornography sites. She obviously believes introducing age verification to protect children from porn sites is an urgent priority and worries that the provisions of the Online Safety Bill (OSB) as currently drafted are not strong enough.

de Souza  is right and will find a great deal of support from across a wide range of children’s organizations, women’s organizations and many other civil society bodies.  

More media attention 

This morning I was interviewed on national radio about the Children’s Commissioner’s article which also seems to have prompted a leader in today’s Times where they said 

As almost everyone acknowledges, it is beyond time for tougher laws to protect children from harmful, abusive and pornographic social media.

Nevertheless it goes on to note 

…there is considerable disquiet among MPs. This is not because anyone opposes…. protections; it is because there is no compulsion on media companies to enact  (them). 

Hear hear.

The “considerable disquiet” is being expressed, for example by Damian Collins MP, who is Chair of the Pre-Legislative Scrutiny Joint Committee on the OSB. Collins  says

We need to look at the role robust age-verification can play.

Hear hear again.

Age verification is not a panacea, not a silver bullet, but it is a bullet. It has worked outstandingly well in respect of keeping children away from all the traditional forms of online gambling. There is absolutely no doubt it could do the same elsewhere, including protecting children from porn and other online harms where there is a legally defined or contractually prescribed minimum age.

It is a counsel of despair to say you accept that age verification is a good thing but you won’t agree to its introduction anyway because you are worried about how it might be misused. The challenge is to devise governance or supervision mechanisms which ensure as far as is humanly possible that there is no misuse. We all need to be confident it is only doing what it says on the tin. If we do not think we can create such systems of governance or supervision then the future is indeed grim for everyone but the uber geeks.

The end of internet exceptionalism

What I think is really going on is, as the internet has become more and more integrated into all aspects of the nation’s  political life, social life, family life and children’s lives we are seeing the end of any notion of internet exceptionalism.

Or rather  more and more of us are no longer willing to accept the wildness of the early years. More and more of us are insisting that the internet and all its works have to be much more closely aligned with our expectations in respect of other types of media and communication tools which now  move among us.

An intensely political period beckons

We all need to be clear. We are entering a period of intense political activity. The  opponents of age verification for porn sites are the usual suspects, the ones we only  normally hear about in children’s debates when they are pointing out why something should not be done, when they are opposing this or that new idea or suggestion. They have a locker full of alibis for inaction. Innovation is cool everywhere but not here. 

Let’s get rid of the most absurd argument right away

Looking ahead to any battles there might be around online porn and children’s access I really do not want to hear anyone say Pornhub or similar can play or has played any kind of useful or positive role in the sexual education or relationship counselling of children.

The fact that some kids may have said they are cool with Pornhub (false bravado aside) or they say they found it  “helpful” in some way, emphatically does not give anyone a licence, much less a mandate, to continue with or to tolerate the status quo. 

To the extent that such sites might (and it’s a mighty, doubting might) have been “helpful” or informative to anyone in the past  it is only a reflection of  historic failings  and lack of  any better alternatives.  No way is it an endorsement or a thank you to Pornhub.

Pornhub was never designed or intended to be an aid to children. It was designed and intended to make money by providing easy access to graphic  forms of sexual imagery for the purpose of promoting sexual stimulation. Education or relationship counselling was not on the list. Children do not have a right to Pornhub. Children have a right to good sex education and states have an obligation to provide it.

Being young is about being a rebel

Children say they are in favour of loads of things their parents or the law forbid them or say are bad for them. It doesn’t make the children right or their parents or the law wrong. 

The doctrine of “evolving capacities” can hit up against any number of brick walls and this is one of them. Do we really want porn sites making individual assessments of whether or not this specific 17 year old or that 15 year old actually would be “cool” and unharmed, even helped, by showing them some or all of their wares? The idea is absurd.

We are drawing to the close of an era

Somewhat prosaically we are drawing to a close an argument that began at least as far back as the Gambling Act 2005 when, for the first time anywhere in the world, a  requirement was introduced to require online companies to introduce robust age verification. Online age verification is no longer a wild and whacky idea. It has moved to the mainstream. The technology required is trivial. The will to use it  on a wider scale has been missing. We are going to fix that.

But at a deeper level, to return to an earlier theme, in the UK and elsewhere in the liberal democracies, we are starting to see the internet first and foremost as a consumer product which, for all its many valuable features, must at its core behave as if it was fit for the consumer space.

Maybe some of the magic or the glitter of the internet will fade. I have a twinge of nostalgia for the excitement of the early days but the world has moved on and the internet cannot stand outside of it, frozen in virtual aspic.

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, Technical Adviser to the European NGO Alliance for Child Safety Online, which is administered by Save the Children Italy and an Advisory Council Member of Beyond Borders (Canada). Amongst other things John is or has been an Adviser to the United Nations, ITU, the European Union, the Council of Europe and European Union Agency for Network and Information Security and is a former Executive Board Member of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety. He is Secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. John has advised many of the world's largest internet companies on online child safety. In June, 2012, John was appointed a Visiting Senior Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science. This was renewed in 2018. More: http://johncarrcv.blogspot.com
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