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Whitehall says mandatory credit card pornography age checks “unlikely”

Neil Merrett Published 19 July 2017

DCMS and adult entertainment industry expects broader ‘framework’ approach to provide wider choice on how age can be proved without compromising privacy


The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) does not expect regulators to require credit card details or any other single method of age checking for an individual to access pornographic and other age restricted content online as required under the Digital Economy Act.

Despite recent media reports warning of government aims to require credit card details to be provided to access adult content, online retailers of age restricted services have been working for a number of years with Whitehall on how to move forward with age checking.

Stakeholders within the pornography industry in particular have firmly rejected any notion that ownership of credit card would be the sole means of age checking, citing economic, privacy and potential censorship issues - not least in terms of the number of adults owning credit cards.

The government has this week pledged to introduce mandatory age verification process by April 2018, although no specific details have so far been provided on how this will be handled and what form of solution or technologies will be used.

It is understood that the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) will be appointed as the regulator to oversee the age checking process and outline preferred solutions for ensuring compliance with the law.

From the perspective of the DCMS, Whitehall has been tight lipped on whether a solution such as the GOV.UK Verify platform or another in-house developed could be considered to support age checking.

Single age check solution "unlikely"

However, a spokesperson for the department that it would be "unlikely" that the regulator would specify a single means of performing age checks in order to ensure future flexibility to adapt to changing technologies. DCMS said it was more likely that a broader number of possible solutions would be supported going forward.

With a solution intended to be in place by April, a group of retailers and service providers that provide age restricted content, including pornography and alcohol, have been working with MPs and other stakeholders over last 18 months on how best to approach checks on when an individual was born.

Chris Ratcliff, chief executive and owner of adult entertainment provider Portland TV, said that he had been involved in wider industry work over the last three years to consider suitable means of age checking in line with broader considerations such as privacy.

As a council member of the Digital Policy Alliance, which serves as a politically neutral and cross party voice on internet development, Portland expressed disappointment at reports that credit card details would be used to check age. He argued that no mention had been made by the government of such a solution, with news reports suggesting this would be the sole direction of travel threatening to undermine extensive consultations on the subject.

Ratcliff said that the while government was not itself expected to approve or mandate possible solutions, it was down to industry to look at common approaches and standards for checking age to acquire restricted services. he argued that this work had been underway since before the Digital Economy bill was being drafted.

Lessons from the gambling industry

Pointing to the experiences of the gambling industry, Ratcliff said solutions had been introduced to check identities against the electoral role, passports or a driving licence, mandated in part by requirements to tackle potential money laundering.

However, from the context of the porn industry, individuals were expected to be less likely to give other such data when accessing services.

In defining a broader approach for the industry under the requirements introduced by the Digital Economy Act and the incoming European Data Protection Regulation, the adult entertainment industry did not need to know who an individual was by comparison. Instead providers just needed certainty that a customer is 18 years of age or over.

Ratcliff said that the Digital Policy Alliance was only at the beginning of ambitions to establish a so-called trust framework for suitable services that can meet a data minimisation approach to age checking. Working alongside the British Standards Institution (BSI), the alliance has also helped set out the PAS 1296 standard, which outlines a tool to help prove a user's age online.

Ratcliff said that the new standard's formation had importantly come from industry stakeholders, insisting that it had also taken in views or privacy experts to meet a series of upcoming data management challenges such as the GDPR becoming UK law from next year.

Yet on a broader level he also called on the government to broaden the range of data available that can be used to allow for specific age verification processes to integrate with certain sets of information, whether this was an NHs number of driving licence.

Ratcliff said that stakeholders in the industry had been briefing policy makers both in the House of Commons and Lords about need for supporting data, with peers in particularly said to have grasped issues raised. However, he argued that it would ultimately fall to the BBFC as the anticipated regulator and DCMS to set out a framework that ensured sufficient levels of public trust.

While accepting that such calls would likely lead to criticisms from privacy campaigners, it was important to find a workable solution supported and trusted by users in order to access content without leading to possible censorship on types of content accessed.

Related articles:

Privacy and identity expert Fishenden calls for Verify rethink

Digital Economy Act becomes law

GOV.UK Verify, NHS numbers and the 25 million user challenge

Government launches pornography age verification consultation


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