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Anti-porn age verification for minors in UK and US attracts data protection criticism

Yoti CEO weighs in
Anti-porn age verification for minors in UK and US attracts data protection criticism
 

The UK’s Online Safety Bill, is now set to force all platforms hosting pornographic material operating in the UK to undertake provably “effective measures” to ensure viewers are over 18.

In addition, the Bill claims that top tech executives will be held “personally responsible” for keeping children safe.

The Bill’s fresh push for “a new higher standard” of age verification came as part of an “eleventh-hour amendment” to the Bill, which has been actively discussed since it was first published as a draft in May 2021.

Biometrics may well represent an important part of how the Online Safety Bill is finally implemented, with both voice and face biometrics being feted as some of the potential methods of age verification that could be used by platforms.

However criticism is coming from some quarters, including questions regarding the data privacy concerns that private companies holding the biometric data, such as facial scans of young people, could raise.

Dr. Monica Horten, policy manager for freedom of expression at Open Rights Group told BBC News that the “processing of the collection of large pools of children’s biometric data by private companies, with no governance structures in place, is something that all parents should be very worried about.”

Robin Tombs, CEO and co-founder at Yoti, commented on the Online Safety Bill in an email to Biometric Update: “The UK Online Safety Bill has to strike a sensible balance between protecting precious freedoms whilst reducing the risk of harms, particularly towards children and vulnerable people.”

“Supporters and critics may never agree on what the right balance is but the UK Bill, now likely to be passed, reflects the unease many people around the world have with the under-regulated status quo.”

Yoti provides a digital ID solution that can be used for age verification, and an age estimation service using biometrics.

The bill, which may come into play sometime in 2024 if approved, is set to be voted on in the House of Lords next week.

Despite criticisms coming in from various quarters, the Bill would seem to have some level of support from the UK public.

A survey from right-leaning TV news channel GB News found 78 per cent of the British public support the idea of using age verification systems to prevent children under 18 accessing online pornography.

On the other side of the Atlantic, U.S. state-led government pushes towards stronger age verification checks are also coming under fierce criticism.

In April, Arkansas became the second state  — besides Utah — to restrict social media use by children, with Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders signing off legislation forcing children to get their parents’ permission before creating an account on many online platforms.

A tech lobbying outfit, known as NetChoice, which represents companies such as Amazon, AOL, Google, Meta, Instagram and eBay has filed a lawsuit, which primarily attacks that the Arkansas legislation on First Amendment grounds.

The suit argues that the legislation, dubbed SB 396, “seriously threatens the safety and privacy of Arkansans — and especially teens — online by forcing online services to use a third party service to track, verify, and store information on minors,” the group writes in a post explaining its suit. “Even more worrisome, users don’t interact with the third party service that is actually handling their documents.”

In addition, the group’s complaint alleges how SB 396 disregards existing federal protections for children online, outlined in the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule (COPPA).

A requirement for age verification with state ID to access pornography in Virginia has also come into effect over the weekend, local outlet WUSA9 reports, after being signed into law by Governor Glenn Youngkin in May.

Popular pornographic website network Pornhub responded by blocking all users from the state. Virginians responded in large numbers by searching for information on VPNs to skirt the restriction.

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