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Government shelves age verification plans for online porn

Plans to introduce age verification to access online pornography will not go ahead, with provisions around protecting children from inappropriate content on the internet to become part of wider regulations

In a review of its objectives around ensuring children are protected from inappropriate content online, the UK government has decided to drop plans to introduce age verification (AV) for online porn.

Since publishing the Online Harms whitepaper in April, the government has backtracked on one of the elements of its plans to protect children from inappropriate content on the internet, which was the introduction of AV.

According to a parliamentary statement by secretary of state at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), Nicky Morgan, shelving the AV plans was prompted by the need to ensure the policy on online harms is “developed coherently”, which would be best achieved through future planned general legislation about online harms.

“This course of action will give the regulator discretion on the most effective means for companies to meet their duty of care,” Morgan noted, adding that the government remains committed to protecting children online.

Under the age verification rules, then described by the UK government as a world first, porn sites would have needed to deploy technology to carry out the checks, or they would have faced sanctions, such as having payment services withdrawn or being blocked to UK users.

The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) was tasked with ensuring compliance with the new law. Cyber security firm NCC Group has created a voluntary certification scheme, the Age Verification Certificate (AVC), to assess the data security standards of age verification providers.

Morgan noted that the government remains determined to become “a world leader in the development of online safety technology” and wants to “ensure companies of all sizes have access to, and adopt, innovative solutions to improve the safety of their users”, including age verification tools.

“We will continue to engage with members of Parliament on the provisions of the online harms regime to ensure the most comprehensive online harms proposals which deliver on the objectives of the Digital Economy Act,” the secretary said.

The decision to drop AV for good follows a major blunder by the DCMS itself, which failed to make an essential notification to the European Commission (EC) when laying out the guidance to sites.

The enforcement date for the requirement to sites to implement AV had already been delayed three times when the administrative error became known. This notification failure, which undermined the legal basis of AV, resulted in a further delay of six months in implementing the rules.

At the time the blunder was disclosed, politicians said the government was “letting children down” and questioned the viability of the AV process.

Age verification providers warned that they were not ready to comply with the rules in time for the previous July 2019 deadline. Open Rights Group (ORG) executive director Jim Killock said the guidance for the scheme was “vague and imprecise”.

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