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Australia’s age verification trial for porn sites extends to cover social media

Regulators consider options as providers argue effective tech is readily available
Australia’s age verification trial for porn sites extends to cover social media
 

Friction over age assurance laws for online pornography is heating up in Australia. ABC News reports on varying reactions to the federal government’s AU$6.5 million trial of age verification technology aimed at stopping minors from accessing social media, porn, gaming and other age-restricted online activities.

“It essentially requires anyone to establish their age to access a website providing adult content,” says John Pane, chair of digital rights group Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA), of the age verification scheme. “So, by default, we’re regulating the rest of the adult public in an endeavor to restrict access by minors.”

This does not sit well with some, particularly when the law – developed specifically for porn, as a response to a rise in violence against women that has reached crisis levels – applies to social media, of which 70 to 80 percent of Australians are active users, and which Communications Minister Michelle Rowland confirmed to be among “use case scenarios that will be examined.” Statistically, it makes sense: about a third of Australian children exposed to pornographic content see it on social media platforms.

Age assurance industry is mature enough to handle sticky situation

Experienced age verification providers insist the solution is not hard to find. “We provide services to the biggest banks in Australia and some of the biggest banks globally – it’s exactly the same technology,” says Peter Violaris, head of global privacy at IDVerse, an Australian age verification provider. “Some people have genuine concerns about honey pots of data being hacked, but that’s not how technology works anymore. We only send the 18-plus status across to the adult site – there’s no name, there’s no email addresses, no mobile number. Then we delete it immediately, so there is no honey pot of data.”

Violaris is not alone in pointing this out. The eSafety commissioner, Julie Inman Grant, has said that “the age assurance industry is maturing, and the time is right now to move forward.” Most providers would agree. A blog post from digital ID firm Yoti drills down on its experience in providing facial age estimation for the global gaming sector, and analyzes legislation in the UK in terms of what rules and regulations are likely to define compliance for content providers and platforms.

VPNs: the dirty paper bag of online porn, easily masking use by minors

A road map developed by the eSafety commissioner calls for a “double-blind tokenized approach” to age verification. ABC News analyzes potential age verification options, declaring biometrics to be a high-risk option, and digital ID wallets to be a medium-risk method for sharing data. It does say the latter has “very few” flaws – other than the big one. Since double-blind tokenized approaches on offer often involve biometrics, but the biometric methods on the market do not use voice verification, which ABC News includes, the analysis should be considered a reflection of public confusion about the methods, more than a reflection on the methods themselves.

Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) such as Tor allow anonymous browsing that can easily bypass age verification controls. The eSafety commissioner has previously cited research saying that a quarter of all Australian internet users have VPN tools in place. After age verification measures introduced in Texas saw an 80 percent reduction in access to porn sites, the assumption was not that people had stopped looking, but rather that most had discovered VPNs.

In other words, as has always been the case, people will find ways to get their porn, whether it’s stashing a few pages of a contraband nudie magazine in a secret drawer or using a VPN to skirt age assurance. Peter Violaris says he does not mind if adults or older teenagers use VPNs to avoid submitting personal data. The point of the law, he says, “is to stop young children, primary-school-age children accessing pornography on their smartphones in the playground. That’s a problem that no modern society should accept, and the solution is there to stop it.”

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