Government scrap plans for pornography age verification

17 October 2019   By Dr Lucy Brown, Editor

The policy to introduce strict age verification checks to police online pornography delayed since April 2018 has now been officially scrapped.

It would have compelled providers of pornography to verify the ages of their users or be banned in the UK.

However, implementation of the policy was first delayed until at least the end of 2019 and now the Digital Secretary Nicky Morgan has confirmed it won't be going ahead.

Instead, other methods will be taken forward, including the creation of a new regulator as proposed in the Online Harms White Paper.

website blocked

Troubled policy

Proposals to block pornographic websites that don't employ strict age verification were first raised as amendments to the Digital Economy Bill in 2016.

Provisions were made in the Digital Economy Act 2017 to introduce the rules, but they were first delayed due to concerns about civil liberties.

A further delay was confirmed earlier this year when a lack of communication with the European Commission meant the policy couldn't be implemented until the end of 2019 at the earliest.

Now, however, these delays have led to the policy being completely scrapped, with the Digital Secretary saying the aims will be better fulfilled by the proposals put forth in the Online Harms White Paper.

Critics of the original age verification proposals said they wouldn't work due to the availability of virtual private networks (VPNs) and the fact that social media sites weren't covered by the ban.

Conversely, the Online Harms White Paper explicitly named social media platforms as a target for their proposed regulator.

New regulatory framework

In her explanation of the Government's decision to scrap the age verification rules, Digital Secretary Nicky Morgan confirmed they intend to deliver the online harms regulatory regime as outlined in the white paper.

This would give a regulatory body the power to force companies including social media platforms, forums and search engines to take more responsibility for the safety of their users.

As well as being used to protect users from harmful content, there would also be a national security element to the regulatory powers, with an expectation the regulator will work alongside law enforcement to prevent incitement to violence, the sale of illegal goods and terrorist activities among other things.

First reported back in September 2018, the consultation on the proposals ran from April to July 2019, meaning the responses to that likely informed the Government's decision to backtrack on their earlier plans.

An interim move to fulfil an EU directive and give Ofcom the powers to fine tech companies was announced in August, but with the final Brexit deal uncertain, this directive may yet not need to be adhered to.

Keeping kids safe online

Amid all the discussion about regulators and online harms, it's important to remember that the scrapped proposals (and subsequent ones) were put forward to protect children and others from dangerous material online.

Age verification for pornography sites with the ability to block sites that did not comply was supposed to prevent children from accessing material that should only be viewed by those over the age of 18.

The Government's latest announcement doesn't mean these aims have been abandoned, but it may take the full implementation of a regulator for them to be realised.

In the meantime, parents wanting to protect their children from online harms as much as possible should read our guide on how to protect kids on social media.

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