February 14, 2022
The Government has said that the Online Safety Bill will be “significantly strengthened” with a new legal duty requiring all sites that publish pornography to put robust checks in place to ensure their users are 18 years old or over. This could include adults using secure age verification technology to verify that they possess a credit card and are over 18 or having a third-party service confirm their age against government data.
If sites fail to act, Ofcom will be able fine them up to 10% of their annual worldwide turnover or block them from being accessible in the UK. Bosses of these websites could also be held criminally liable if they fail to cooperate with Ofcom.
Many sites where children are likely to be exposed to pornography are already in scope of the draft Online Safety Bill, including the most popular pornography sites as well as social media, video-sharing platforms and search engines. However, as drafted, only commercial porn sites that allow user-generated content are in scope of the Bill.
The new standalone provision will require providers who publish or place pornographic content on their services to prevent children from accessing that content. This will capture commercial providers of pornography as well as sites that allow user-generated content, such as social media companies, if they also carry published (i.e. non-user-generated) pornographic content. Any companies which run such a pornography site which is accessible to people in the UK will be subject to the same strict enforcement measures as other in-scope services.
The onus will be on the companies themselves to decide how to comply with their new legal duty. Ofcom may recommend the use of a growing range of age verification technologies available for companies to use that minimise the handling of users’ data. The Bill does not mandate the use of specific solutions so that it can remain flexible to allow for innovation and the development and use of more effective technology in the future.
Age verification technologies do not require a full identity check. Users may need to verify their age using identity documents, but the Government says that the measures companies put in place should not process or store data that is irrelevant to the purpose of checking age. Solutions that are currently available include checking a user’s age against details that their mobile provider holds, verifying via a credit card check, and other database checks including government-held data such as passport data.
Any age verification technologies used must be secure, effective and privacy-preserving. All companies that use or build this technology will be required to adhere to the UK’s strong data protection regulations or face enforcement action from the Information Commissioner’s Office.
The Government is working closely with Ofcom to ensure that online services’ new duties come into force as soon as possible following the short implementation period that will be necessary after the Bill’s passage. To read the Government’s press release in full, click here.