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Ofcom’s Children’s Safety Code of Practice gets mixed reviews 

Age more than just a number, say providers of proven biometric age estimation tools   
Ofcom’s Children’s Safety Code of Practice gets mixed reviews 
 

The regulatory world keeps digging to get at the root of the age verification problem and unearth legal solutions, an effort that a new op-ed in the Financial Times compares to the Factory Acts of the nineteenth century. There is rising concern about the growth of an already-swollen porn industry, and confusion about age assurance measures being introduced. Some say the regulatory response is too little, too late. Others are banking on the effectiveness of the UK’s Children’s Safety Code of Practice, a plank of the recently passed Online Safety Act, as a roadmap for effective age verification policies.

Baroness says draft code leaves too many loopholes open

Writing in the Financial Times, Beeban Kidron, a crossbench peer and expert on digital regulation and children’s rights, argues that the draft code is not ambitious enough in attempting to regulate age-gated content, leaving loopholes for high-risk activities such as livestreaming or direct messaging. Parents, she says, are already furious at how tech companies have pushed addictive design on their children, and leaving further space for risk in the Code is not acceptable.

“Similarly, the requirement for measures to have an existing evidence base fails to incentivise new approaches to safety, including those revealed by whistleblowers,” writes Kidron. She notes the case of Frances Haugen and Arturo Béjar, Meta employees-turned-whistleblowers who approached Mark Zuckerbeeg with internal research about designs that prioritized privacy and safety, which the tech mogul rejected. “How can you provide evidence that something does not work if you don’t try it?” Kidron asks.

In her view, the Code “must tackle all the risks it identifies. Its emphasis is on asking kids to choose protective tools rather than safety by design and default. This may well serve tech companies since it is estimated that over 90 percent of people never change the default settings.” Kidron also calls out the 1,300-page code for being impenetrable to the people it is supposed to serve. “The measures are in practice only understood by the regulator and regulated – this is unhealthy.”

“As we celebrate the arrival of the draft code, we should already be demanding that the holes in it are fixed, the exceptions readdressed, the lobbyists contained,” she writes in conclusion. “We must move towards faster legislation based on existing principles of how we treat children and, of course, we should have an AI act. This is a new industrial revolution; we know from the last one what is needed.”

Yoti’s Robin Tombs aims to clear up confusion about Code

Beeban Kidron may know what is needed, but others report some confusion. Posting on LinkedIn, Yoti CEO Robin Tombs calls out the Daily Mail for a misleading headline claiming that the Children’s Code will require kids to show ID to use social media. Per the Mail’s subheading, “Under-13s will be kicked off sites under tough new guidelines as firms are told to use facial recognition technology to prevent children accessing harmful content.”

First, says Tombs, showing an ID is not required. Age verification that compares selfie biometrics with ID documents is just method one among several permitted options. Secondly, “Ofcom is not telling businesses to use facial recognition. Facial recognition is needed to match a user’s live selfie to their face on their ID doc, but Ofcom has made it clear businesses can offer facial age estimation (FAE), which – when regulated effectively – does not include any identification or facial recognition.”

Tombs cites Yoti’s four years of experience in providing privacy-preserving age estimation for social media firms, vaping and cigarette companies, gaming, dating and porn sites, and says FAE is increasingly the preferred method because of its simplicity, efficiency and minimal exchange of personally identifiable information (PII).

In a separate post, Tombs also points to a problem that doesn’t get enough attention: research shows many parents will happily sign their kids up for sites they are not technically old enough to use. Meaning parental consent likely doesn’t meet Ofcom’s criteria for “highly effective” age check methods. “Businesses wanting highly effective age checks are most likely to offer their users a choice of facial age estimation or ID doc and selfie match,” says Tombs, “as both are very hard for children to ‘beat’.”

More questions arise about Australia’s age assurance plans

Australian politicians would seem to agree with Yoti’s CEO, having recently announced a $6.5 million ($US4.3 million) trial of age assurance technology, as part of a response to what has been called a national epidemic of violence against women. InnovationAus reports that the government’s pilot of age assurance technology is expected to test both age verification tools like anonymized tokens and age estimation tools like face and voice recognition.

Opponents, however, are asking why Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is now keen to implement age assurance tools, having so recently declared the available options “immature” and not ready for deployment. Critics also question the correlation between online age assurance and the core issue. Digital Rights Watch head of policy Samantha Floreani says that, “while the internet undoubtedly plays a role in shaping cultural and societal values, we simply cannot content-moderate and age-verify our way out of systemic misogyny and violence.”

Cyprus seeks clarity from gaggle of local pornographers

Porn is a worldwide business, but authorities in Cyprus think its corporate side might be too centralized in their backyard. Cyprus Mail reports that An MP will ask parliament to investigate the growth of Cyprus’ porn industry, said to be worth hundreds of millions of euros. Some of the largest porn sites operate in Cyprus, including Pornhub, XHamster, Stripchat, Faphouse and Virtual Taboo. Allegedly acting on a tip from another European nation about a “serious issue” regarding the industry, MP Nikos Kettiros wants to know if the porn companies’ finances are on the up-and-up – and that adequate age checks are carried out for both content production and distribution.

Age-related concerns are not new for porn producers and distributors, who have faced high-profile questions about their role in enabling the sexual exploitation of minors. But the wave of regulation and policy related to age assurance measures has put a new spotlight on consumers, with research showing that up to 93 percent of boys and 62 percent of girls are now exposed to some form of pornography before the age of 18.

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