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Anonymity vs child protection: Why protecting minors online is proving more difficult than you think

Anonymity vs child protection: Why protecting minors online is proving more difficult than you think

By Dr. Heinrich Grave, Senior Vice President Digital Identity, IDnow

For almost as long as the internet has existed, it has included corners which contain content best unseen by child and adolescent eyes, as well as products for sale that aren’t meant for minors. Curious young minds will often go searching for these pages, goods and services though, so there needs to be a method of gatekeeping on these websites that goes beyond asking the user to simply click a button to confirm or deny their adult status.

If someone under the legal age – and who looked under it – attempted to buy alcohol or tobacco in a shop, they would be asked to confirm their identity with an official, photographic document like a passport or driving licence. The implementation of a barrier online which uses identity verification products to determine the user’s age, before either allowing or denying them access to the next stage of the website, can successfully prevent minors from looking at harmful content online.

Knowing who’s behind the screen

Such identity verification solutions have their foundations in financial services transactions that are carried out on the internet. Known as ‘Know Your Customer’ (or KYC) processes, they allow banks to understand who is making the transactions and whether they are involved in money laundering or other illegal activity. The transaction would subsequently be blocked if the person is of sufficient interest to the authorities.

These processes usually require the user to provide either an official document such as a credit card or to take a selfie to verify their identity via an automated cross-check of an ID document. In the case of online gambling, these identity verification processes have been successful in preventing minors from accessing the sites. However, when it comes to using them to prevent children from viewing adult content online, their implementation is proving much more divisive.

Demand for change

It’s not as though they have not been put in place because there is no need for them. A study from the British Board of Film Classification in 2020 found that more than half of 11-to-13-year-olds had viewed pornography. Another poll of 2,100 UK adults in 2021 found that 81 per cent of them agreed that the government should implement age verification to protect children from all online pornography. Broadly speaking, there is agreement that there needs to be a form of age verification on such websites.

The lawmakers have heard the voice of the people and have not been sitting idly by. The Online Safety Bill in the UK has finally been passed this week, which is due to introduce age verification systems on all pornographic websites within the next six months. The bill has been a long time coming as more and more clauses have been added to it, but has finally been passed by Parliament.

Verification methods that have been discussed around the Online Safety Bill include uploading the details of a form of identification or a credit card, or the use of AI-based age estimation technology.

Can I see your ID please?

While the UK is the first country to implement such a sweeping piece of legislation related to verification, Germany has a similar law in place. It states that: ‘Certain content harmful to minors, such as gambling or pornography, may only be distributed online if the provider ensures access through closed, adults-only user groups.’ These closed groups are ensured by so-called age verification (AV) systems, which meet the legal requirements published by the German Commission for the Protection of Minors (KJM). At present, 99 concepts and modules for AV systems have received positive assessment – among them more traditional KYC solutions as well as new technology like the digital identity wallets.

An appropriate solution that doesn’t require the whole picture

There is a general understanding that users might be willing to give up some of their personal details, but not all of them, if the result was them still being able to access websites from which minors should rightly be forbidden.

A digital identity wallet protects the user’s privacy by allowing the selective disclosure of some of the identity attributes contained within it. With a stored and previously verified identity in a wallet, the user can easily show that they are over the local legal age required to view the content that they are trying to access, without having to reveal their full identity profile to the site’s administrative operation.

This is in stark contrast to some KYC procedures, such as credit card or database checks, where the full identity of the user is laid bare. Selective disclosure via a wallet achieves the necessary verification without hindering the law, but it also normalises simple age verification online without adversely affecting conversion or usage rates. This will be a distinct advantage to the providers and sites who implement it, as users come to understand the ease and security of continuing to use their preferred sites.

The social media problem

The issue of making sure a user is of an appropriate age is not restricted to pornographic websites. Social media sites are equally a minefield too. Ofcom research has shown that that one in three children have lied about their age to access adult content on social media sites and apps, which suggests that age verification would be a welcome addition to their stable too.

However, some Big Tech firms are concerned that if potential users have to be vetted before they can start viewing, sharing and creating content, they won’t want to continue using them. With advertising revenues at stake, they are less than keen to implement them.

As a perhaps performative gesture, some platforms have implemented tools which estimate a user’s age. But the problem with these forms of technology lie in the name; they only ‘estimate’ a user’s age rather than confirm it, with AI biases also a hurdle to overcome.

Online Safety Bill is key

The Online Safety Bill is all set to be a key indicator of how the UK will fare as it stands on its own in Europe after Brexit. Doubts remain, however, that it will make good its twin promises of creating a safer internet while promoting the UK as a place to do business, all while upholding the notion of free speech.

If the bill does not have the hoped-for degree of success, there is no doubt that a solution of some form will be required. The protection of minors will remain a priority, as will the adverse effect on business and the British demand for internet-based privacy. Realistically, it is here where a ready-made wallet solution is waiting for the opportunity to deliver what the bill cannot.

About the author

Dr. Heinrich Grave is Senior Vice President Digital Identity at IDnow.

DISCLAIMER: Biometric Update’s Industry Insights are submitted content. The views expressed in this post are that of the author, and don’t necessarily reflect the views of Biometric Update.

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