Unrealistic expectations and the delay in implementing age verification

Wed. 14 Mar. 2018

This week has seen a significant development in the UK government’s plans to introduce age verification (AV) for certain categories of Web site. If “certain categories of website” sounds vague, it’s because it is vague: to put it simply if a little colloquially, no one knows what’s going on, including the government department responsible for implementing AV and their appointed Web-site regulator, the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC). That’s why enforcement of AV has been delayed until further notice, probably not before late this year.

The government department concerned with pushing through this aspect of the new Digital Economy Act is the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). And a sobering insight into what has, at least until this week, been their complacency and their irresponsibility – some might even say their incompetence, as amply demonstrated from the beginning of this shambles several years ago – is provided by one of the main campaigners for a sensible approach to AV and related issues, Pandora Blake, in her blog item earlier this year: DCMS pass the buck on age verification.

Another one of the principal campaigners for a sensible approach, Myles Jackman (aka the “Obscenity Lawyer”), who is the legal director for the Open Rights Group, was quoted by the BBC on Monday when the news of the delay became general public knowledge, as saying: “This is a chance for the government to rethink the absence of safeguards for privacy and security, but it is frightening to consider that this policy was two weeks away from launch before it was pulled ... [The government] needs to introduce powers to safeguard privacy immediately before this scheme causes real damage”. See the full BBC article, Online porn age checks delayed in UK. Ironically, this came only six days after the BBC’s technology reporter’s article outlined the very real fears concerning the security of personal data, and industry uncertainty (even consternation) as to everything to do with the still-shambolic, proposed AV regulation: Porn check critics fear data breach.

Myles took it further with his interview for the Sun yesterday. Now, I’m not in the habit of reading the Sun, much less referring to it, but it’s very interesting to see how this organ (pun intended) of the Murdoch empire seems to have come out against AV. Perhaps they’re concerned their own “smutty” site (to use their terminology) will end up behind an “age-wall”. Read about it here: SMUT SHAME: UK porn laws could lead to blackmail, suicide – and young Brits turning to extremism.

It’s no wonder the implementation and enforcement of AV has been delayed.

While it is, thankfully, exactly as Myles Jackman has suggested – a welcome opportunity for the DCMS to reconsider a number of nonchalant irresponsibilities concerning personal privacy and data security, not to mention issues surrounding the beginning of serious internet censorship – we should not fool ourselves: this delay is the result of completely unrealistic expectations regarding technology and the capabilities of the BBFC. Perhaps data security is part of the DCMS’ realisation that they set themselves a far, far bigger task than they originally imagined, but I can’t help being somewhat pessimistic.

This is not to say we should not hope for and work towards much better policies and safeguards concerning this law and its technical implementation (or its abandonment), but if the reasons for its delay have little to do with privacy concerns, then these concerns are unlikely to be taken any more seriously now than they have been throughout the development of AV policy. If they are, it will only be because of the work of people like Myles Jackman and Pandora Blake and their ongoing hard work over the coming months.

My view on the delay is that the DCMS is not going to want to admit overreaching itself (stating they want to make sure they “get it right” is not the same as admitting both to entertaining a fantasy and to mismanagement from the start); therefore, watch for a subtle reigning-in of the boundaries of what categories of Web site are to be subjected to AV to bring their gargantuan task within the bounds of technical feasibility. I think this is already detectable. This will be very welcome as well, but it will only be short-term relief (no pun intended); the future is not looking bright as technology develops further and the abilities of government and the BBFC (or whoever the regulator is in the future) to classify, regulate and ban more and more sites becomes their cherished reality and the toast of moralistic lobby groups.

Mistress Geo

PS: I’ve written about UK internet censorship and related issues previously. A good place to start is with one of my more recent items on the subject, Advocacy group Backlash makes submission to Lords. Or, you could go back to the beginning, when I started commenting on what was happening; this item of mine has links to all subsequent ones: ‘Extreme porn’ and internet censorship.