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UK government to introduce online porn age checks

World-first regulations will see age verification introduced in July and enforced by the British Board of Film Classification. Non-compliant sites risk withdrawal of payment services or being blocked

The UK government is to introduce the world’s first regulations for age verification when accessing online pornography.

Under the new rules, porn sites will need to implement age-verification technology or face sanctions, such as having payment services withdrawn or being blocked for UK users.

There will be an implementation period to allow providers of online porn content to comply with the new standards, according to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).  

Enforcement will begin on 15 July, with the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) being responsible for ensuring compliance with the new laws.

Age-verification providers will also need to comply with General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) standards.

Privacy concerns have been taken into account when designing the new laws, said the DCMS, adding that age-verification arrangements should only be concerned with verifying age rather than identity.

“We have taken the time to balance privacy concerns with the need to protect children from inappropriate content,” said digital minister Margot James.

“We want the UK to be the safest place in the world to be online, and these new laws will help us achieve this.”

The BBFC and cyber security firm NCC Group have created a voluntary certification scheme, the Age Verification Certificate (AVC), to assess the data security standards of age verification providers.

Under the AVC, age-verification providers can choose to be independently audited by NCC around their compliance with privacy and data security requirements, and then certified by the BBFC.

The BBFC will also publish information on its age-verification website to help companies decide which product to use.

Read more about age verification

But Jim Killock, executive director of digital campaigning organisation Open Rights Group, said giving companies the idea that privacy standards are optional is “dangerous and irresponsible”.

“Having some age verification that is good and other systems that are bad is unfair and a scammer’s paradise – of the government’s own making,” he said.

In a previous interview with Computer Weekly, Killock said monitoring tens of thousands of pornographic sites will be one of the many challenges the BBFC encounters in enforcing the new rules, as well as it being a costly exercise.

Data leaks could be “disastrous”, said Killock, referring to the requirement for users’ identities to be shared in order to prove they can use the service.

Internet service providers (ISPs) have a key role to play in the policy to block non-compliant porn websites, but Andrew Glover, chair of the Internet Services Providers’ Association, stressed that ISP blocking “will only be used as a last resort”.

“Our members are expecting high levels of compliance from online pornography providers, and it is the role of the regulator, the BBFC, to ensure that these sites remain committed to age verification,” said Glover said.

“Age verification represents a significant change to online content regulation. It is therefore important that this new policy is introduced sensibly and proportionately and that the public’s expectations are managed effectively.”

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