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UK passes Online Safety Bill, paving the way to biometric age verification

UK passes Online Safety Bill, paving the way to biometric age verification

After years of heated debates and delays, Britain has passed its Online Safety Bill, which could introduce more age verification methods to protect children from online threats, including biometric ones.

The Bill was passed by the UK Parliament on Tuesday and is expected to take effect soon. According to the new rules, social media platforms will have to remove illegal content and prevent children from accessing harmful and age-inappropriate content by enforcing age limits and age-checking measures. Face and voice biometrics have been floated as a solution for this task.

“Our common-sense approach will deliver a better future for British people, by making sure that what is illegal offline is illegal online,” UK’s Technology Secretary Michelle Donelan said.

The bill takes a zero-tolerance approach, the government says. Companies that fail to comply can expect fines of up to 18 million pounds (US$22.3 million) or 10 percent of their annual global turnover. In some cases, their bosses may even face prison.

Aside from keeping children away from pornography, child sexual abuse, hate crimes, self-harm, terrorism and illegal drugs, social media sites will also be required to prevent fraud and scams. The law also makes it easier to convict people who share intimate images or deepfakes without consent.

The Online Safety Bill has faced both strong support and vehement criticism, including parliamentary scrutiny. In September, digital rights-focused nonprofit the Electronic Frontier Foundation warned that using government-issued documents or biometric data for age verification purposes could lead to privacy risks.

Detractors such as Wikipedia’s Founder Jimmy Wales have attacked the government’s approach as “age-gating” and selective censorship. The Bill has also caused concern that it could render end-to-end encrypted messaging ineffective, which The Record denies. But its supporters claim that the regulation could keep children from harm such as sexual predators.

“Children can benefit greatly from life online. Tech companies can now seize the opportunity to embrace safety by design,” says Peter Wanless, CEO of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

The charity is a part of the industry body Online Safety Tech Industry Association, which includes UK government agencies, tech companies and age verification providers such as Yoti.

Julie Dawson, chief policy and regulatory officer at Yoti says in a statement to Biometric Update that with age assurance, platforms can create safer, age-appropriate experiences for a third of online users who are currently under the age of 18.

“Some of the largest platforms are already using age assurance technology to assess the age of users. The Online Safety Bill will ensure all regulated companies play their part in creating a safer, more positive online world,” says Dawson.

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