The government decision to stall age verification system for adult content sites has baffled us here at Yoti.

Yoti has developed tech to help organisations who want to check age to protect people online. We are a global leader in this area, having performed over 200 million age estimates with companies across a number of sectors from social media live streaming, to dating and classified sites. We are working with the social networking app Yubo to make their young community safer, with DateID to allow people to create verified profiles and over the past years we have been working with the NSPCC to design a secure way minors can report sexually explicit content of themselves to be removed from the internet.

However, one of the most prevalent dangers that young people face online today is presented by adult content. As former Culture Minister Nicky Morgan said in the same breath as announcing the death of the proposed age-verification legislation, adult content is too easily accessed online and more needs to be done to protect children from harm”. 

The technology to do so already exists – we have performed over 200 million age estimates this year for a range of companies. So what exactly is the government waiting for?

 

A step backwards

Originally set out in the Digital Economy Act 2017, this piece of legislation looked set to make the UK a world leader in the responsible use of digital ID and age estimation to protect children online. Having led the world in the creation of a publicly-available specification for age checking, the PAS 1296, it seemed like the government were committed to extending this work through forward-thinking, digital age checking solutions.

However, just weeks before its proposed implementation date, the plans were put back for a third time after it was revealed that the government had failed to notify the European Union. The legislation has now been quietly dropped altogether and may be rolled into the so-called ‘online harms’ regime, which seeks to impose a ‘duty of care’ on all websites and social media platforms. Part legislative measures, part non-legislative measures, this signifies not only a great step backwards in the protection of young people online but £2 million in wasted preparations. And that’s just the money wasted by the government, not to mention the money spent by companies preparing for the legislation.

 

Safety or censorship?

Many privacy and free speech groups have championed the change of direction, having flagged issues with individual privacy and freedom of information. Former Culture Minister John Whittingdale went so far as to say that the legislation risked “dragging British citizens into a draconian censorship regime”. 

However, what the legislation sought to do was create the same safe environment online that exists in the offline world, where you must be over 18 to legally buy adult magazines from stores and access pornographic material from licensed sex shops and cinemas.

Currently, there are no restrictions for viewing online adult content. An NSPCC study found that 53% of 11-16 year-olds have seen sexually explicit content online, putting them at risk of developing unrealisitic attitudes about sex and consent, more negative attitudes towards roles in relationships and an increase in ‘risky’ sexual behaviour. 44% of boys from the study said that pornography had given them ideas about the type of sex they wanted to try.

 

The problem with self-regulation 

A proposed ‘duty of care’ may sound worryingly like the much-heralded but never-quite-materialised calls for the self-regulation of social media, which the NSPCC states on their website have failed. More information on the ‘duty of care’ and how it would operate has been called for by many and outlined with great clarity by Dr Lorna Woods.

The idea of no regulation in the case of adult content therefore seems absurd, although opponents have critiqued the legislation for being an attempt to fix a social problem with technology. Education is of course paramount to teaching young people about sexual relationships but studies show that parents fully support age verification, with 83% of parents stating that porn sites should demand users verify their age. The need for the support of companies to take responsibility for the safety of their users is critical. This legislation would have given the UK a head start in terms of solving age verification ahead of the other areas it is looking to include in the Age Appropriate Design Code and the Online Harms white paper.

 

Privacy by design

The choice made by the government to avoid giving guidance on how businesses should navigate the proposed age-verification requirements gave rise to what some may consider non-privacy-friendly methods of proving age, such as handing over bank details, creating digital wallets or buying a “porn pass” over the counter in a corner store.

However, the government is fully aware that robust and secure digital IDs and age-estimation technology now exist to enable individuals to share less data and remain anonymous.

The Yoti Digital ID is built with privacy by design, with data minimisation techniques that allow the individual to only share what is necessary. When sharing data, users receive a receipt of what type of data was shared, with whom and when – visible only to them and the entity they shared with. Users can choose to hide receipts, which removes all trace of the data share from their activity feed, but the person or business will still have a record of the share. Yoti cannot see any transactions an individual undertakes and all personal information is encrypted and stored separately in a non-relational database. The only way of decrypting each piece of data and summoning them together  is through the individual’s private key, which Yoti then encrypts for further security.

 

ProveMyAge

Yoti’s two approaches to accessing adult content are outlined in our ProveMyAge offering. They are simple and have been approved by the BBFC, audited by NCC Group. They are free to individuals and for all BBFC-regulated adult content companies.

    1. Viewers can use a Yoti Digital ID to scan a QR code on the screen, anonymously share the fact they’re over 18 and gain access to the website in a matter of seconds.
    2. Viewers can use our age estimation technology which uses the camera on a device to take a photo of their face, which is then converted into a biometric template and analysed to estimate age. Once the image is age estimated, all the data is instantly deleted. No personal information is attributed to this transaction and it is fully anonymous.

 

Ethical technology

Yoti makes it easy for almost anyone over the age of 21 to be age estimated on an online platform or at a self-checkout without needing any pre-registration or physical ID document. To make sure we develop and use biometric technology ethically and in such a way that always prioritises the individual, we have internal governance measures, including an ethics and trust committee, we share our approach with regulators and civil society bodies in roundtable sessions and we are also advised by our Guardian Council of expert professionals in data privacy, human rights and last mile tech. We also publish a regularly updated white paper on our age estimation technology and its current accuracy levels.

 

Social inclusion and fraud

Today many people are unable to prove their age as they do not have a government-issued ID document. This may be due to cost or accessibility and is a serious form of social exclusion, sometimes denying citizens access to things like banking, healthcare and public services. If we look at the UK, 33% of under 18s do not have driving licenses and 24% of over 18s do not have passports or driving licenses. Age estimation is an innovative and inclusive solution for this.

Additionally, those that do have ID documents frequently lose or have them stolen – over 1 million driving licenses and 400,000 passports each year in the UK alone. This puts their owners at increased risk of identity theft and fraud. Unsurprisingly, this is mainly in the younger demographic, who, unsurprisingly, are the ones who are most regularly challenged for age.

Widespread verbal, physical and racial abuse towards retail staff at the point of checking age was highlighted in the research by Under Age Sales. We await the publication of the Home Office Consultation on Abuse to Retail Staff to see if that corroborates the findings from 2017 by Under Age Sales. Age estimation and verification technologies could be a great solution to this problem by relieving responsibility from staff and protect their safety.

 

The way forward

With proactive changes in regulation, the government could drive a healthy ecosystem of digital providers that enable individuals to securely prove their identity and age in a privacy-friendly way. Age estimation stands to gain widespread adoption as the most efficient, inclusive and frictionless way of proving age across the globe.

We are watching to see if their “unwavering” commitment to “do more to protect children from adult content online” is going to fall by the wayside for a fourth time or finally come good.