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Age verification laws coming at the porn industry from all directions

Debate at various stages in UK, US, Canada
Age verification laws coming at the porn industry from all directions
 

A reckoning is on the way for porn sites, social media platforms and other age-restricted online content, as regulators move to pass mandatory age verification laws aimed at preventing children from exposure to online harms. But the issue crosses a political nexus at which distaste for obscenity meets the treasured status of personal privacy, particularly on the issues of biometrics and digital identity. For both tech giants and politicians jockeying for votes, choices will have to be made.

UK-Australia online safety MOU promotes accountability in design 

The governments of the UK and Australia have signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) committing to cooperation in online safety and security, notably for children and vulnerable groups. The document focuses on policy areas including age assurance, online child sexual exploitation and abuse, tech-facilitated gender-based violence, privacy, encryption, online scams, fraud, and the impact of new technologies such as machine learning and generative AI models.

Designed as “a strategic framework for both participants to jointly deliver concrete and coordinated online safety and security policy initiatives and outcomes to support their citizens, businesses and economies,” the MOU lists a series of joint actions the partners can take to uphold their commitment. The ten actions range from promoting digital literacy to countering foreign interference, but a few in particular touch on digital identity and biometrics.

A note on regulation and enforcement says national regulatory frameworks should provide scope for sharing of information and best practices, and calls for signatories to “support regulatory coherence and increased coordination between independent regulators at an international level.”

Another section aims to hold the tech industry accountable for building safety into the design, development and deployment of online platforms, services, systems and products. Complementary to that is a call to “stimulate the growth and promotion of an innovative, resilient and trusted international safety technology sector through policy interventions which support more efficient routes to market for safety technology solutions and innovations.”

The UK Online Safety Act mandates age verification for adult content sites, while Australia has struggled to pass age verification laws for porn.

Nebraska wants to protect kids from porn but also from digital ID

Nebraska is following Utah, Louisiana and Arkansas’ lead on age verification with its Legislative Bill 1092, which would require porn sites to have digital identity verification for age assurance. An article in the Nebraska Examiner says the law would allow porn sites to work with third-party digital ID providers to implement age estimation via facial recognition.

Although the system would delete the data, State Senator Dave Murman, who introduced the bill, still had to clarify that it would not require creating a new form of digital ID, and answer to privacy advocates who claim the law would violate constitutional rights.

PornHub, an industry-leading porn site, has already suspended operations in two states over age verification laws.

Ohhhhh, Canada: Trudeau and Poilievre trade shots over digital identity 

The same friction is causing heat in Canada, where the Prime Minister and his main political rival have been sparring over legislation that supports age verification for porn sites, according to reports from The National Post and CTV News.

Bill S-210 (the Protecting Young Persons from Exposure to Pornography Act) is a Senate private members’ bill that would require age verification for users accessing sexually explicit content, and impose unspecified penalties for noncompliance. The usual options for verification are on the table: digital identity, face biometrics, age estimation.

But the mere mention of digital identity has triggered a stiff response from freedoms-conscious conservatives, which prompted a spokesperson for Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre to assert that his party does not support the “imposition” of a digital ID on Canadians.

The Senate bill does not specify how age verification should be conducted. The independent Senator who introduced it, Julie Miville-Dechêne, says accredited third parties would be enlisted as part of the ménage, although she says specific age verification methods will be approved following consultations and the establishment of regulations.

Miville-Dechêne says “this is the normal way of proceeding and it’s what other jurisdictions have done: identifying appropriate age-verification mechanisms is a technical issue, the technology evolves constantly, and we cannot pass a bill that becomes obsolete after a few months.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will show his own hand in forthcoming weeks, when his Liberal government reveals its own anticipated online harms legislation. In the meantime, the PM has accused Poilievre of playing both sides of the issue, as Conservatives decry Trudeau’s “woke authoritarian agenda” and sow fears about digital ID while simultaneously supporting online age verification laws. Poilievre, in turn, has pointed to notorious incidents of racism in Trudeau’s history.

Social media also affected by would-be porn bill

Regardless of where the two leaders land on porn, a noted Canadian legal commentator points out that more than smut will be forced to evolve around Bill S-210. Specifically, social media.

“The bill raises significant concerns with the prospect of government-backed censorship, mandated age verification to use search engines or social media, and a framework for court-ordered website blocking,” writes Michael Geist in a post on his website. Geist says that since the language in the bill applies to “any organization that, for commercial purposes, makes available sexually explicit material on the Internet” to minors, “there is no threshold or limit in the law that would exclude sites that may make available some sexually explicit material, but are primarily focused on other content.”

Geist raises an eyebrow at the Age Verification Providers Association, the lobby group representing age verification technology providers, whom he accuses of pushing for legislation that goes beyond porn – and beyond necessity. “The unlimited scope of the Canadian law to sites such as Twitter, Snap, Instagram, Twitch and many others is no accident,” Geist writes. “It is the stated goal of Bill S-210 to require all Canadians to undergo an age verification system in order to access content on general purpose sites.”

“Bill S-210 is a dangerous bill that raises serious risks to privacy, freedom of expression, and censorship in Canada.”

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One Reply to “Age verification laws coming at the porn industry from all directions”

  1. Professor Geist misinterprets the Canadian Bill as applying to entire social media platforms – these platforms could be compliant by applying age verification to only pornographic content. Neither children nor adults would be required to verify their age merely to access the platform as a whole.

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