Digital ID was discussed by the Commons Science and Technology Committee on 13th November 2018.
Carol Monaghan Committee Member: At the moment, platforms such as Facebook require age verification, but that simply means
entering a date of birth, and children can change that. If you are planning to extend that, or look at how it might apply to other social media, how confident are you that the age verification processes would be robust enough to cope?
Margot James MP, Minister for Digital and the Creative Industries: At the moment, I do not think that we would be, but age verification tools and techniques are developing at pace, and we keep abreast of developments. At the
moment , we think we have a robust means by which to verify people's age at 18; the challenge is to develop tools that can verify people's age at a younger age, such as 13. Those techniques are not robust enough yet, but a lot of technological research
is going on, and I am reasonably confident that, over the next few years, there will be robust means by which to identify age at younger than 18.
Stephen Metcalfe Committee Member: My question is on the same point about how
we can create a verification system that you cannot just get around by putting in a fake date of birth. I assume that the verification for 18 - plus is based around some sort of credit card, or some sort of bank card. The issue there is that,
potentially, someone could borrow another person's card, because it does not require secret information--it requires just the entering of the 16-digit number, or something. But on the younger ages, given that we are talking about digital life and digital
literacy, do you think that the time has come to talk about having a digital verified ID that young people get and which you cannot fiddle with--a bit like an online ID card, or digital passport? I know that that idea has been around a little while.
Margot James: It has. I do think that the time has come when that is required, but there are considerable hoops to go through before we can arrive at a system of digital identity, including someone's age, that is acknowledged,
respected and entered into by the vast majority of people. As you probably know, the Government have committed in prior years to the Verify system, which we think has got as far as it can go, which is not far enough. We have a team of excellent policy
officials in the DCMS looking afresh at other techniques of digital identity. It is a live issue and there have been many attempts at it; there is frustration, and not everybody would agree with what I have said. But you asked my view, and that is
it--and the Department is focusing a lot of energy on that area of research.
Chair: Can you imagine that your legislation, when it comes, could include the concept, to which Stephen referred, of a digital identity for
Margot James: That is a long way off--or it is not next year, and probably not the year after, given how much consultation it would require. The new work has only just started, so it is not a short-term solution,
and I do not expect to see it as part of our White Paper that we publish this winter. That does not mean to say that we do not think that it is important; we are working towards getting a system that we think could have public support.
To go slightly beyond the terms of your inquiry, with regard to the potential for delivering a proper digital relationship between citizen and G overnment through delivery of public services, a digital identity system will be
important. We feel that public service delivery has a huge amount to gain from the digital solution.
Bill Grant Committee Member:: I am pleased to note that the Government are addressing issues that have been with us for
nearly a decade--the dark side of social media and the risk to children, not least the risk that we all experience as parliamentarians. Can you offer any reason why it has taken so long for Government to begin that process? Would you be minded to
accelerate the process to address the belated start?
Margot James: One reason is that progress has been made by working with technology companies. The Home Office has had considerable success in working with technology
companies to eradicate terrorist content online. To a lesser but still significant extent, progress has also been made on a voluntary basis with the reduction in child abuse images and child sexual exploitation. I said "significant , " but this
is a Home Office area--I am working closely with the Home Office, because the White Paper is being developed in concert with it--and it is clear that it does not feel that anything like enough is being done through voluntary measures.
Chair: Do you feel that?
Margot James: Yes, I do. A lot of the highly dangerous material has gone under the radar in the dark web, but too much material is still available, apparently, on various
platforms, and it takes them too long to remove it.
Chair: Ultimately, the voluntary approach is not working adequately.
Margot James: Exactly--that is our view now. I was trying to address
the hon. Member's question about why it had taken a long time. Partly it is that technology changes very fast , but, partly, it is because voluntary engagement was delivering, but it has impressed itself on us in the last 12 months that it is not
delivering fast enough or adequately. We have not even talked about the vast range of other harms, some of which are illegal and some legal but harmful, and some in the grey area in between, where decidedly inadequate progress has been made as a result
of the many instances of voluntary engagement, not just between the Government and the technology sector but between charitable organisations and non-governmental organisations, including the police.
Bill Grant: It was
envisaged earlier that there would be some sort of regulator or ombudsman, but , over and above that , Martha Lane Fox's think - tank proposed the establishment of an office for responsible technology, which would be overarching, in whatever form the
regulation comes. Would you be minded to take that on board?
Margot James: That is one proposal that we will certainly look at, yes. Martha Lane Fox does a lot of very good work in this area, has many years' experience of
it, and runs a very good organisation in the "tech for good" environment, so her proposals are well worth consideration. That is one reason why I was unable to give a specific answer earlier, because there are good ideas, and they all need
proper evaluation. When the White Paper is published, we will engage with you and any other interested party , and invite other organisations to contribute to our thinking, prior to the final legislation being put before Parliament and firming up the
non-legislative measures, which are crucial. We all know that legislation does not solve every ill, and it is crucial that we continue the very good work being done by many internet companies to improve the overall environment.