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Privacy concerns arise in the murky realm of online age verification


Sep 17, 2023

The myFT Daily Digest email provides the latest social news summaries to subscribers, sent each morning. Currently, age verification laws are being implemented to protect children from accessing explicit content, leading to changes in how websites are used. While it’s not entirely true that everything on the internet is porn, adult websites have a widespread presence and contribute to the adoption of faster broadband and video streaming. Furthermore, adult content drives traffic to social media platforms, as seen when Tumblr’s popularity declined after banning porn in 2018. Some argue that lewd websites fulfill the techno-utopian ideal of a surveillance-free and censor-free internet, although this perspective may be idealistic if one is not vigilant about the content on their site and its viewership.

Research shows that accessing pornography is common among young people. A study by the British Children’s Commissioner revealed that one in ten nine-year-olds had viewed pornographic content, while a study by French regulator Alcom found that a fifth of 10-year-old boys accessed explicit websites at least once a month. For many, these extreme videos serve as their introduction to adult sexual relationships. To address this issue, a proposed solution is the implementation of barriers that require users to provide identification proving their adulthood, similar to purchasing alcohol. Some regions have already adopted such measures, redirecting users attempting to open a pornographic site in Louisiana to an age verification system. Other states like Arkansas, Montana, Mississippi, Virginia, and Utah have taken similar actions. However, criticisms surround these decisions, questioning why the limit is set at 18 when the minimum age for marriage is 16 in many states, and how site security regarding user IDs can be ensured. Efforts to find methods to avoid online content are slowly progressing.

In the coming weeks, the UK’s online safety legislation, which has been long-delayed, is expected to become law, mandating age verification for porn sites. The country’s regulations have been focused on high-end magazines and DVDs, lacking updates to address online content. Previous attempts to introduce laws prohibiting under-18s from accessing online pornography were delayed and eventually abandoned. The challenge lies in selecting an effective yet secure method of age verification without compromising privacy, as there is concern that virtual private networks (VPNs) can be used to bypass age blocks. Australia recently decided to abandon plans to enforce age verification on porn sites, instead shifting the responsibility for child protection to parents through the creation of an educational platform and software restrictions. However, it is unlikely that this will be the sole limitation.

Notably, critics of age verification include adult website owners and privacy activists. The Electronic Frontier Foundation considers it a “surveillance system,” and Airo, the owner of adult entertainment sites like Pornhub and Brazzers, supports age verification but questions its implementation. For instance, since Pornhub complied with Louisiana’s new law, its traffic in the state has declined by approximately 80%. Instead of relying on age verification, these groups propose adding more controls to children’s devices, not limited to adult content. Examples of alternative approaches include Meta working with online age verification company Yoti to incorporate tools in dating sites, and Amazon implementing palm-based identification services at bars in Denver to ensure legal drinking age compliance. This technology has the potential to spread rapidly. As age verification is seen as a blunt tool, online users are unlikely to be willing to upload their driver’s license or passport photos to access legal sites. Nonetheless, the desire to protect young children remains strong, potentially impacting online privacy, which is already regarded as somewhat mythical.

By Editor

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