Who opposes on-line age checking and why?

Articles have recently appeared in the Daily Telegraph and on the BBC website  making the claim that age checking, as required under the Digital Economy Act, will drive adolescents towards the dark web. They quote an impact assessment dated March 2017 and based on a draft produced in the previous year – before the products and services being developed in support of BSI PAS 1296  were available for demonstration.

The argument being made is akin to claiming that putting speed cameras on main roads will cause motorists to use side roads as race tracks.

Before dismissing such claims as absurd we need to recognise that there are a number of groups who do not want effective anonymised age checking, as per the PAS, for a variety of reasons.

• There is claim that the techniques on offer threaten anonymity and privacy. In fact they remove the need for on-line retailers/publishers/service providers to collect/maintain personal data that may leak or be requisitioned by regulatory authorities. This reduces both the attack profile for organised crime and risk of fines under the GDPR while increasing the privacy of the vulnerable.

• The techniques thus undermine the case for big data collection in support of programmatic advertising at a time when reputable businesses are already pulling their on-line advertising budgets because of the filth with which their brands can be routinely associated. This does indeed present a challenge to the business models of the burgeoning “big data” industry.

• There is a powerful and well funded (in Internet lobbying terms) group who want their click bait viewed by those of any age to earn fees and/or to preserve their ability to prey on those under the age of informed consent. The layers of one-way encryption which prevent access to information, other than that a given photo or hashtag refers to some-one above or below a given age who has been verified by a known and trusted person (e.g. a teacher or bank official), are a significant obstacle both to disseminating inappropriate clickbait to minors and to acquiring the identities needed by those seeking to access age protected services in order to contact and groom the users.

The information to credibly impersonate most of us can be acquired quite cheaply over the dark net, collected and collated from hacking big databases or bought from those employed in overseas call centres. In consequence technologies previously used to check the identities and authorisations of those with legitimate permission to make high value financial services transactions now have to be used on a large scale in support of routine bank transactions. They are now available to verify access to age-controlled services at remarkably low cost.

There are, in consequence, now a variety of age-checking technologies that appear “fit for purpose” – if the purpose is:

• to reduce the risk of those using reputable, age-controlled services being approached and groomed by perverts with false identities.

• to enable those providing “adult” entertainment, on-line gambling or selling alcohol or cigarettes or knives, to reduce the risk of inadvertently serving under-age customers – including those using their parent’s credit cards or who have acquired their own bank accounts, pre-paid debit cards – or those belonging to some-one else.

• to make it easier for payment providers and advertiser to avoid penalties for supporting illegal activity – for example “all pornography providers who do not require age verification will be acting illegally. Payment providers and advertisers are already contractually obliged to disengage their services from any company found to be acting illegally”. Once notified of the illegal behaviour, payment service providers and advertisers are “required to disengage from non-compliant pornography sites.”

Of course nothing is 100%.

If intelligent and intellectually curious youngsters are into on-line misbehaviour they can access material over the dark web, just as they can supplement their pocket money by acting as money mules or as foot soldiers for organised on-line criminal networks. Hence the need (on which I blogged last year) to identify the brightest and best, to recognise and reward their abilities as “cyber prefects” and to harness them as potential security industry high fliers or state sponsored cyberwarriors, before they turn to the dark side – or are recruited by overseas powers.

Interestingly age verification is one of the few high-tech services where Britain leads the world. US and Pacific Rim Countries are looking to adopt the secure, anonymised, “low data” solutions developed for the new legislation, available for demonstration to MPs and Officials and ready for use as soon as the legislation is passed.

The reason is for the UK lead is that our domestic commercial “adult entertainment” providers are strong supporters of robust anonymised age checking. They have no wish to attract those who cannot pay. They have every reason to not want to be undercut by those peddling free porn as click bait. The UK licensed on-line gambling providers are similarly strong supporters. So too are those selling age-controlled products (alcohol, knives, tobacco etc.) and those delivering them. The group also has global support from those wishing to provide safe, child and family on-line environments.

Much of the opposition comes from the click bait industry – which until the revolt of the advertisers , often did not measure or care where the clicks came from. That is now changing, although we can wonder whether some of the planned automated responses are yet appropriate to the problem . But part undoubtedly comes from those who brought the National Council for Civil Liberties into disrepute in 1976. That community appears to wish to preserve a “right” of unchecked on-line access to children to corrupt, groom and abuse and to be fighting a determined rearguard action accordingly, using a variety of obfuscations, as in the 1970s, to disguise their true motives and mislead reputable organisations.

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