More porn sites face being blocked in UK unless they verify users’ ages | Science & Tech News

The government has expanded the range of pornography websites that face being blocked in the UK unless they actually verify the ages of their visitors instead of just allowing them to check a box.

A new provision in the Online Safety Bill – which intends to prevent children from accessing adult material on the web – will now cover all commercial pornography sites, extending the law’s scope beyond YouTube-style platforms that allow unverified users to upload content.

It also closes what the NSPCC has described as the “OnlyFans loophole” where the site could legitimately argue that it should not be covered by the law because children did not constitute a significant portion of its user base.

The government is announcing updates to the legislation, which it intends to quickly reintroduce to Parliament and bring into force, following the scrutiny of its initial draft by a joint committee of MPs and peers.

Image:
Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries has pledged criminal sanctions for tech bosses as part of the legislation

Digital Minister Chris Philp said: “It is too easy for children to access pornography online. Parents deserve peace of mind that their children are protected online from seeing things no child should see.

“We are now strengthening the Online Safety Bill so it applies to all porn sites to ensure we achieve our aim of making the internet a safer place for children,” Mr Philp added.

Security and privacy experts have cautioned that the requirement to actually verify users ‘ages could lead to databases being created on individuals’ sexual preferences, potentially exposing them to social stigma and blackmail.

More on Online Safety Bill

The NSPCC welcomed the move but said the updated legislation “still falls short of giving children comprehensive protection from preventable abuse and … needs significant strengthening to match the government’s rhetoric”.

The sun sets over the Houses of Parliament
Image:
The government aims to quickly bring the new law through Parliament and into force

The latest attempt to tackle pornography

It is not the first time the government has attempted to introduce age verification requirements on online pornography companies.

Similar plans were introduced in 2017 but ultimately scuppered after several delays caused by a range of technological challenges and a critical administrative erroras revealed by Sky News.

The aim is for porn websites to include technologies similar to gambling ones that verify their users are over 18, either through a user’s credit card or by having a third-party service confirm their age against government data.

Sites that do not comply with the Online Safety Bill could face a fine of up to 10% of their global annual turnover or be blocked from within the UK. Senior executives could even be held criminally liable if they fail to comply with Ofcom as the regulator.

Cambridge University Library.  Pic: Cambridge University Library
Image:
Security experts from Cambridge warn the law could risk people’s privacy. Pic: Cambridge University Library

Security experts have concerns

The University of Cambridge’s Ross Anderson, professor of security engineering, told Sky News: “This has been announced multiple times in multiple countries and then walked back once the practical difficulties are studied.

“First, circumvention will be easy enough. Kids get enough practice already, eg at school. The low-cost techniques that the large [Internet Service Providers] will use will not withstand anyone who knows what they’re doing.

“Second, the big providers will use age verification to erect barriers against competition – though age verification may be one of the less important ways in which the Online Safety Bill will do this; the content filtering requirements will be much more expensive.

“Third, there are bound to be privacy harms, eg gay kids being outed to their parents. Tech companies are often pretty heedless about such edge cases,” he added.

Professor Anderson cited his colleague Dr Richard Clayton who cautioned that the need to verify each user would mean that pornography viewers would stop visiting these sites in “incognito mode” in their web browsers due to the friction of needing to go through the verification process each time .

This would expose them to tracking and third-party cookies which could allow companies to build up detailed profiles and histories of their viewing history and interests.

Jim Killock, the executive director of the Open Rights Group, warned: “There is no indication that this proposal will protect people from tracking and profiling porn viewing. We have to assume the same basic mistakes about privacy and security may be about to be made again. “

Leave a Comment