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UK govt tells online porn users to show their faces for biometric age checks

UK govt tells online porn users to show their faces for biometric age checks
 

Facial age estimation, biometric photo ID matching, bank or mobile ID and digital wallets are all effective options for age verification to keep minors from accessing online pornography, according to newly proposed guidelines from Ofcom, the UK’s regulatory body for communications.

In a news release, Ofcom lays out the numbers on digital pornography, saying that the latest research from the UK Children’s Commissioner shows that the average age at which children first see online pornography is 13. More than a quarter encounter it by age 11, and ten percent see it as young as 9. Nor is it just sex the kids are being exposed to: 79 percent have seen pornography that features violence or degrading acts.

“Pornography is too readily accessible to children online, and the new online safety laws are clear that must change,” says Ofcom CEO Dame Melanie Dawes. “Our practical guidance sets out a range of methods for highly effective age checks. We’re clear that weaker methods – such as allowing users to self-declare their age – won’t meet this standard.”

Dawes says that under the Online Safety Act, sites or apps hosting pornographic content must implement “highly effective” age assurance checks that provide “robust protection to children from stumbling across pornography.” On the other hand, they should also “take care that privacy rights and freedoms for adults to access legal content are safeguarded.” Personal data protection and privacy are the biggest concerns that most adults have about age assurance, and as such Ofcom emphasizes that all approved methods are subject to the UK’s data privacy laws.

Ofcom’s list of effective age assurance and verification technologies includes biometric options and the use of digital identity wallets. Photo ID face matching with liveness checks, as well as biometric face scans for facial age estimation are among the tools that get the thumbs up. But Ofcom also recognizes the speed at which available digital security technology can change. “Given the technology underpinning age assurance is likely to develop and improve in future, “ it says, “our guidance includes a non-exhaustive list of methods that we currently consider could be highly effective.”

One suggestion is the establishment of a “challenge age”, wherein anyone estimated to be under a certain age threshold would face additional checks. “We are aware that a wide range of age estimation methods exist,” Ofcom says, but “at present, we have only proposed including facial age estimation in our guidance, as we do not have evidence to suggest that other methods of age estimation are currently capable of being highly effective, are sufficiently mature technologies, or are being deployed at scale. We will continue to review this position over time as technologies evolve.”

One thing is explicitly clear: legacy verification methods will no longer cut the mustard. Self-declaration of age, online payment methods that do not require users to be 18, and general terms and conditions are “weaker methods” that do not meet the standards of Ofcom’s draft guidelines.

Ofcom says it will publish its final guidelines in 2025, in anticipation of them becoming law thereafter. This could prove to be an optimistic projection. A previous attempt to mandate age verification for porn sites died after getting mired in debates over potential privacy concerns. Porn providers continue to argue that the risks of potential data leaks from age checks could have serious consequences.

That said, the issue of age checks for porn, social media, online gambling and other age-restricted content remains a red hot topic in regulatory and biometric circles.

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