Age Verification and adult internet censorship was discussed by the Commons Science and Technology Committee on 13th November 2018.
Carol Monaghan Committee Member: The Digital Economy Act made it compulsory for commercial pornography sites to undertake age verification, but implementation has been subject to ongoing delays. When do we expect it to go live?
Margot James MP, Minister for Digital and the Creative Industries: We can expect it to be in force by Easter next year. I make that timetable in the knowledge that we have laid the necessary secondary legislation before Parliament. I am
hopeful of getting a slot to debate it before Christmas, before the end of the year. We have always said that we will permit the industry three months to get up to speed with the practicalities and delivering the age verification that it will be
required to deliver by law. We have also had to set up the regulator--well, not to set it up, but to establish with the British Board of Film Classification , which has been the regulator, exactly how it will work. It has had to consult on the
methods of age verification, so it has taken longer than I would have liked, but I would balance that with a confidence that we have got it right.
Carol Monaghan: Are you confident that the commercial pornography companies are going to engage fully and will implement the law as you hope?
Margot James: I am certainly confident on the majority of large commercial pornography websites and platforms being compliant with the law. They have engaged well with the BBFC and the Department , and want to be on the right side of the
law. I have confidence, but I am wary of being 100% confident, because there are always smaller and more underground platforms and sites that will seek ways around the law. At least, that is usually the case. We will be on the lookout for that,
and so will the BBFC. But the vast majority of organisations have indicated that they are keen to comply with the legislation.
Carol Monaghan: One concern that we all have is that children can stumble across pornography. We know that on social media platforms, where children are often active, up to a third of their content can be pornographic, but they fall
outside the age verification regulation because it is only a third and not the majority. Is that likely to undermine the law? Ultimately the law, as it stands, is there to safeguard our children.
Margot James: I acknowledge that that is a weakness in the legislative solution. I do not think that for many mainstream social media platforms as much of a third of their content is pornographic, but it is well known that certain social
media platforms that many people use regularly have pornography freely available. We have decided to start with the commercial operations while we bring in the age verification techniques that have not been widely used to date. But we will keep a
watching brief on how effective those age verification procedures turn out to be with commercial providers and will keep a close eye on how social media platforms develop in terms of the extent of pornographic material, particularly if they are
platforms that appeal to children--not all are. You point to a legitimate weakness, on which we have a close eye.
Pornographic Websites: Age Verification - Question
House of Lords on 5th November 2018 .
Baroness Benjamin Liberal Democrat
To ask Her Majesty 's Government what will be the commencement date for their plans to ensure that age-verification to prevent children accessing pornographic websites is implemented by the British Board of Film Classification .
Lord Ashton of Hyde The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
My Lords, we are now in the final stages of the process, and we have laid the BBFC 's draft guidance and the Online Pornography (Commercial Basis) Regulations before Parliament for approval. We will ensure that there is a sufficient period
following parliamentary approval for the public and the industry to prepare for age verification. Once parliamentary proceedings have concluded, we will set a date by which commercial pornography websites will need to be compliant, following an
implementation window. We expect that this date will be early in the new year.
I thank the Minister for his Answer. I cannot wait for that date to happen, but does he share my disgust and horror that social media companies such as Twitter state that their minimum age for membership is 13 yet make no attempt to restrict some
of the most gross forms of pornography being exchanged via their platforms? Unfortunately, the Digital Economy Act does not affect these companies because they are not predominantly commercial porn publishers. Does he agree that the BBFC needs to
develop mechanisms to evaluate the effectiveness of the legislation for restricting children's access to pornography via social media sites and put a stop to this unacceptable behaviour?
Lord Ashton of Hyde
My Lords, I agree that there are areas of concern on social media sites. As the noble Baroness rightly says, they are not covered by the Digital Economy Act . We had many hours of discussion about that in this House. However, she will be aware
that we are producing an online harms White Paper in the winter in which some of these issues will be considered. If necessary, legislation will be brought forward to address these, and not only these but other harms too. I agree that the BBFC
should find out about the effectiveness of the limited amount that age verification can do; it will commission research on that. Also, the Digital Economy Act itself made sure that the Secretary of State must review its effectiveness within 12 to
Lord Griffiths of Burry Port Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Wales)
My Lords, once again I find this issue raising a dynamic that we became familiar with in the only too recent past. The Government are to be congratulated on getting the Act on to the statute book and, indeed, on taking measures to identify a
regulator as well as to indicate that secondary legislation will be brought forward to implement a number of the provisions of the Act. My worry is that, under one section of the Digital Economy Act , financial penalties can be imposed on those
who infringe this need; the Government seem to have decided not to bring that provision into force at this time. I believe I can anticipate the Minister 's answer but--in view of the little drama we had last week over fixed-odds betting
machines--we would not want the Government, having won our applause in this way, to slip back into putting things off or modifying things away from the position that we had all agreed we wanted.
Lord Ashton of Hyde
My Lords, I completely understand where the noble Lord is coming from but what he said is not quite right. The Digital Economy Act included a power that the Government could bring enforcement with financial penalties through a regulator. However,
they decided--and this House decided--not to use that for the time being. For the moment, the regulator will act in a different way. But later on, if necessary, the Secretary of State could exercise that power. On timing and FOBTs, we thought
carefully--as noble Lords can imagine--before we said that we expect the date will be early in the new year,
Lord Addington Liberal Democrat
My Lords, does the Minister agree that good health and sex education might be a way to counter some of the damaging effects? Can the Government make sure that is in place as soon as possible, so that this strange fantasy world is made slightly
Lord Ashton of Hyde
The noble Lord is of course right that age verification itself is not the only answer. It does not cover every possibility of getting on to a pornography site. However, it is the first attempt of its kind in the world, which is why not only we
but many other countries are looking at it. I agree that sex education in schools is very important and I believe it is being brought into the national curriculum already.
The Earl of Erroll Crossbench
Why is there so much wriggle room in section 6 of the guidance from the DCMS to the AV regulator? The ISP blocking probably will not work, because everyone will just get out of it. If we bring this into disrepute then the good guys, who would
like to comply, probably will not; they will not be able to do so economically. All that was covered in British Standard PAS 1296, which was developed over three years. It seems to have been totally ignored by the DCMS. You have spent an awful
lot of time getting there, but you have not got there.
Lord Ashton of Hyde
One of the reasons this has taken so long is that it is complicated. We in the DCMS , and many others, not least in this House, have spent a long time discussing the best way of achieving this. I am not immediately familiar with exactly what
section 6 says, but when the statutory instrument comes before this House--it is an affirmative one to be discussed--I will have the answer ready for the noble Earl.
Lord West of Spithead Labour
My Lords, does the Minister not agree that the possession of a biometric card by the population would make the implementation of things such as this very much easier?
Lord Ashton of Hyde
In some ways it would, but there are problems with people who either do not want to or cannot have biometric cards.
Following the conclusion of their consultation period, the BBFC have issued new age verification guidance that has been laid before Parliament. It is unclear why, if the government now recognises that privacy protections
like this are needed, the government would also leave the requirements as voluntary.
The new code has some important improvements, notably the introduction of a voluntary scheme for privacy, close to or based on a GDPR Code of Conduct. This is a good idea, but should not be put in place as a voluntary
arrangement. Companies may not want the attention of a regulator, or may simply wish to apply lower or different standards, and ignore it. It is unclear why, if the government now recognises that privacy protections like this are needed, the
government would also leave the requirements as voluntary.
We are also concerned that the voluntary scheme may not be up and running before the AV requirement is put in place. Given that 25 million UK adults are expected to sign up to these products within a few months of its
launch, this would be very unhelpful.
Parliament should now:
Ask the government why the privacy scheme is to be voluntary, if the risks of relying on general data protection law are now recognised;
Ask for assurance from BBFC that the voluntary scheme will cover the all of the major operators; and
Ask for assurance from BBFC and DCMS that the voluntary privacy scheme will be up and running before obliging operators to put Age Verification measures in place.
The Digital Economy Act does not allow the BBFC to judge age verification tools by any standard other than whether or not they sufficiently verify age. We asked that the BBFC persuade the DCMS that statutory requirements for
privacy and security were required for age verification tools.
The BBFC have clearly acknowledged privacy and security concerns with age verification in their response. However, the BBFC indicate in their response that they have been working with the ICO and DCMS to create a
voluntary certification scheme for age verification providers:
"This voluntary certification scheme will mean that age-verification providers may choose to be independently audited by a third party and then certified by the Age-verification Regulator. The third party's audit will
include an assessment of an age-verification solution's compliance with strict privacy and data security requirements."
The lack of a requirement for additional and specific privacy regulation in the Digital Economy Act is the cause for this voluntary approach.
While a voluntary scheme above is likely to be of some assistance in promoting better standards among age verification providers, the "strict privacy and data security requirements" which the voluntary scheme
mentions are not a statutory requirement, leaving some consumers at greater risk than others.
Sensitive Personal Data
The data handled by age verification systems is sensitive personal data. Age verification services must directly identify users in order to accurately verify age. Users will be viewing pornographic content, and the data
about what specific content a user views is highly personal and sensitive. This has potentially disastrous consequences for individuals and families if the data is lost, leaked, or stolen.
Following a hack affecting Ashley Madison -- a dating website for extramarital affairs -- a number of the site's users were driven to suicide as a result of the public exposure of their sexual activities and interests.
For the purposes of GDPR, data handled by age verification systems falls under the criteria for sensitive personal data, as it amounts to "data concerning a natural person's sex life or sexual orientation".
It is of critical importance that any accreditation scheme for age verification providers, or GDPR code of conduct if one is established, is in place and functional before enforcement of the age verification provisions in
the Digital Economy Act commences. All of the major providers who are expected to dominate the age verification market should undergo their audit under the scheme before consumers will be expected to use the tool. This is especially true when
considering the fact that MindGeek have indicated their expectation that 20-25 million UK adults will sign up to their tool within the first few months of operation. A voluntary accreditation scheme that begins enforcement after all these people
have already signed up would be unhelpful.
Consumers should be empowered to make informed decisions about the age verification tools that they choose from the very first day of enforcement. No delays are acceptable if users are expected to rely upon the scheme to
inform themselves about the safety of their data. If this cannot be achieved prior to the start of expected enforcement of the DE Act's provisions, then the planned date for enforcement should be moved back to allow for the accreditation to be
Issues with Lack of Consumer Choice
It is of vital importance that consumers, if they must verify their age, are given a choice of age verification providers when visiting a site. This enables users to choose which provider they trust with their highly
sensitive age verification data and prevents one actor from dominating the market and thereby promoting detrimental practices with data. The BBFC also acknowledge the importance of this in their guidance, noting in 3.8:
"Although not a requirement under section 14(1) the BBFC recommends that online commercial pornography services offer a choice of age-verification methods for the end-user".
This does not go far enough to acknowledge the potential issues that may arise in a fragmented market where pornographic sites are free to offer only a single tool if they desire.
Without a statutory requirement for sites to offer all appropriate and available tools for age verification and log in purposes, it is likely that a market will be established in which one or two tools dominate. Smaller
sites will then be forced to adopt these dominant tools as well, to avoid friction with consumers who would otherwise be required to sign up to a new provider.
This kind of market for age verification tools will provide little room for a smaller provider with a greater commitment to privacy or security to survive and robs users of the ability to choose who they trust with their
We already called for it to be made a statutory requirement that pornographic sites must offer a choice of providers to consumers who must age verify, however this suggestion has not been taken up.
We note that the BBFC has been working with the ICO and DCMS to produce a voluntary code of conduct. Perhaps a potential alternative solution would be to ensure that a site is only considered compliant if it offers users a
number of tools which has been accredited under the additional privacy and security requirements of the voluntary scheme.
GDPR Codes of Conduct
A GDPR "Code of Conduct" is a mechanism for providing guidelines to organisations who process data in particular ways, and allows them to demonstrate compliance with the requirements of the GDPR.
A code of conduct is voluntary, but compliance is continually monitored by an appropriate body who are accredited by a supervisory authority. In this case, the "accredited body" would likely be the BBFC, and the
"supervisory authority" would be the ICO. The code of conduct allows for certifications, seals and marks which indicate clearly to consumers that a service or product complies with the code.
Codes of conduct are expected to provide more specific guidance on exactly how data may be processed or stored. In the case of age verification data, the code could contain stipulations on:
Appropriate pseudonymisation of stored data;
Data and metadata retention periods;
Data minimisation recommendations;
Appropriate security measures for data storage;
Security breach notification procedures;
Re-use of data for other purposes.
The BBFC's proposed "voluntary standard" regime appears to be similar to a GDPR code of conduct, though it remains to be seen how specific the stipulations in the BBFC's standard are. A code of conduct would also
involve being entered into the ICO's public register of UK approved codes of conduct, and the EPDB's public register for all codes of conduct in the EU.
Similarly, GDPR Recital 99 notes that "relevant stakeholders, including data subjects" should be consulted during the drafting period of a code of conduct - a requirement which is not in place for the BBFC's
It is possible that the BBFC have opted to create this voluntary scheme for age verification providers rather than use a code of conduct, because they felt they may not meet the GDPR requirements to be considered as an
appropriate body to monitor compliance. Compliance must be monitored by a body who has demonstrated:
Their expertise in relation to the subject-matter;
They have established procedures to assess the ability of data processors to apply the code of conduct;
They have the ability to deal with complaints about infringements; and
Their tasks do not amount to a conflict of interest.
Parties Involved in the Code of Conduct Process
As noted by GDPR Recital 99, a consultation should be a public process which involves stakeholders and data subjects, and their responses should be taken into account during the drafting period:
"When drawing up a code of conduct, or when amending or extending such a code, associations and other bodies representing categories of controllers or processors should consult relevant stakeholders, including data
subjects where feasible , and have regard to submissions received and views expressed in response to such consultations."
The code of conduct must be approved by a relevant supervisory authority (in this case the ICO).
An accredited body (BBFC) that establishes a code of conduct and monitors compliance is able to establish their own structures and procedures under GDPR Article 41 to handle complaints regarding infringements of the code, or
regarding the way it has been implemented. BBFC would be liable for failures to regulate the code properly under Article 41(4),
 however DCMS appear to have accepted the principle that the government would need to protect BBFC from such liabilities.
GDPR Codes of Conduct and Risk Management
Below is a table of risks created by age verification which we identified during the consultation process. For each risk, we have considered whether a GDPR code of conduct may help to mitigate the effects of it.
User identity may be correlated with viewed content.
This risk can never be entirely mitigated if AV is to go ahead, but a CoC could contain very strict restrictions on what identifying data could be stored after a successful age verification.
Identity may be associated to an IP address, location or device.
It would be very difficult for a CoC to mitigate this risk as the only safe mitigation would be not to collect user identity information.
An age verification provider could track users across all the websites it's tool is offered on.
Strict rules could be put in place about what data an age verification provider may store, and what data it is forbidden from storing.
Users may be incentivised to consent to further processing of their data in exchange for rewards (content, discounts etc.)
Age verification tools could be expressly forbidden from offering anything in exchange for user consent.
Leaked data creates major risks for identified individuals and cannot be revoked or adequately compensated for.
A CoC can never fully mitigate this risk if any data is being collected, but it could contain strict prohibitions on storing certain information and specify retention periods after which data must be destroyed, which may
mitigate the impacts of a data breach.
Risks to the user of access via shared computers if viewing history is stored alongside age verification data.
A CoC could specify that any accounts for pornographic websites which may track viewed content must be strictly separate and not in any visible way linked to a user's age verification account or data that confirms their
Age verification systems are likely to trade off convenience for security. (No 2FA, auto-login, etc.)
A CoC could stipulate that login cookies that "remember" a returning user must only persist for a short time period, and should recommend or enforce two-factor authentication.
The need to re-login to age verification services to access pornography in "private browsing" mode may lead people to avoid using this feature and generate much more data which is then stored.
A CoC cannot fix this issue. Private browsing by nature will not store any login cookies or other objects and will require the user to re-authenticate with age verification providers every time they wish to view adult
Users may turn to alternative tools to avoid age verification, which carry their own security risks. (Especially "free" VPN services or peer-to-peer networks).
Many UK adults, although over 18, will be uncomfortable with the need to submit identity documents to verify their age and will seek alternative means to access content. It is unlikely that many of these individuals will
be persuaded by an accreditation under a GDPR code.
Age verification login details may be traded and shared among teenagers or younger children, which could lead to bullying or "outing" if such details are linked to viewed content.
Strict rules could be put in place about what data an age verification provider may store, and what data it is forbidden from storing.
Child abusers could use their access to age verified content as an adult as leverage to create and exploit relationships with children and teenagers seeking access to such content (grooming).
This risk will exist as long as age verification is providing a successful barrier to accessing such content for under-18s who wish to do so.
The sensitivity of content dealt with by age verification services means that users who fall victim to phishing scams or fraud have a lower propensity to report it to the relevant authorities.
A CoC or education campaign may help consumers identify trustworthy services, but it can not fix the core issue, which is that users are being socialised into it being "normal" to input their identity details
into websites in exchange for pornography. Phishing scams resulting from age verification will appear and will be common, and the sensitivity of the content involved is a disincentive to reporting it.
The use of credit cards as an age verification mechanism creates an opportunity for fraudulent sites to engage in credit card theft.
Phishing and fraud will be common. A code of conduct which lists compliant sites and tools externally on the ICO website may be useful, but a phishing site may simply pretend to be another (compliant) tool, or rely on the
fact that users are unlikely to check with the ICO every time they wish to view pornographic content.
The rush to get age verification tools to market means they may take significant shortcuts when it comes to privacy and security.
A CoC could assist in solving this issue if tools are given time to be assessed for compliance before the age verification regime commences .
A single age verification provider may come to dominate the market, leaving users little choice but to accept whatever terms the provider offers.
Practically, a CoC could mitigate some of the effects of an age verification tool monopoly if the dominant tool is accredited under the Code. However, this relies on users being empowered to demand compliance with a CoC,
and it is possible that users will instead be left with a "take it or leave it" situation where the dominant tool is not CoC accredited.
Allowing pornography "monopolies" such as MindGeek to operate age verification tools is a conflict of interest.
As the BBFC note in their consultation response, it would not be reasonable to prohibit a pornographic content provider from running an age verification service as it would prevent any site from running their own tool.
However, under a CoC it is possible that a degree of separation could be enforced that requires an age verification tools to adhere to strict rules about the use of data, which could mitigate the effects of a large pornographic content
provider attempting to collect as much user data as possible for their own business purposes.
 "Infringements of the following provisions shall, in accordance with paragraph 2, be subject to administrative fines up to 10 000 000 EUR, or in the case of an undertaking, up to 2
% of the total worldwide annual turnover of the preceding financial year, whichever is higher: the obligations of the monitoring body pursuant to Article 41(4)."
 "contingent liability will provide indemnity to the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) against legal proceedings brought against the BBFC in its role as the age
verification regulator for online pornography."
The Government has announced the organisations that will sit on the Executive Board of a new national body to tackle online harms in the UK.
The UK Council for Internet Safety (UKCIS) is the successor to the UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS), with an expanded scope to improve online safety for everyone in the UK.
The Executive Board brings together expertise from a range of organisations in the tech industry, civil society and public sector.
Margot James, Minister for Digital and the Creative Industries said:
Only through collaborative action will the UK be the safest place to be online. By bringing together a wealth of expertise from a wide range of fields, UKCIS can be an example to the world on how we can work together to
face the challenges of the digital revolution in an effective and responsible way.
UKCIS has been established to allow these organisations to collaborate and coordinate a UK-wide approach to online safety.
It will contribute to the Government's commitment to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online, and will help to inform the development of the forthcoming Online Harms White Paper.
Priority areas of focus will include online harms experienced by children such as cyberbullying and sexual exploitation; radicalisation and extremism; violence against women and girls; hate crime and hate speech; and forms
of discrimination against groups protected under the Equality Act, for example on the basis of disability or race.
CEO of Internet Matters Carolyn Bunting said:
We are delighted to sit on the Executive Board of UKCIS where we are able to represent parents needs in keeping their children safe online.
Online safety demands a collaborative approach and by bringing industry together we hope we can bring about real change and help everyone benefit from the opportunities the digital world has to offer.
The UKCIS Executive Board consists of the following organisations:
Commission for Countering Extremism
End Violence Against Women Coalition
Independent Advisory Group on Hate Crime
Internet Watch Foundation
Internet Service Providers and Mobile Operators (rotating between BT, Sky, TalkTalk, Three, Virgin Media, Vodafone)
National Police Chiefs' Council
National Crime Agency - CEOP Command
Northern Ireland Executive
UKCIS Evidence Group Chair
The UKCIS Executive Board is jointly chaired by Margot James, Minister for Digital and the Creative Industries (Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport); Victoria Atkins, Minister for Crime, Safeguarding and
Vulnerability (Home Office); and Nadeem Zahawi, Minister for Children and Families (Department for Education). It also includes representatives from the Devolved Administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Board membership will be
kept under periodic review, to ensure it represents the full range of online harms that the government seeks to tackle.
A committee of MPs has claimed that the government is not taking the urgent action needed to protect democracy from fake news on Facebook and other social media.
The culture committee wants a crackdown on the manipulation of personal data, the spread of disinformation and Russian interference in elections. Tory MP Damian Collins, who chairs the committee, says he is disappointed by the response to its
latest report. Collins has accused ministers of making excuses to further delay desperately needed announcements on the ongoing issues of harmful and misleading content being spread through social media.
When the Digital Culture Media and Sport Committee issued its interim report on fake news in July it claimed that the UK faced a democratic crisis founded on the manipulation of personal data.
The MPs called for new powers for the Electoral Commission - including bigger fines - and new regulation of social media firms. But of the 42 recommendations in its interim report, the committee says only three have been accepted by the
government, in its official response, published last week.
The committee has backed calls from the Electoral Commission to force social media advertisers to publish an imprint on political ads to show who had paid for them, to increase transparency. Collins also criticised the government's continued
insistence that there was no evidence of Russian interference in UK elections.
Collins said he would be raising this and other issues with Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright, when he appears before the committee on Wednesday.