In a move welcomed by Labour Party deputy leader Tom Watson and campaigning organisations including Open Rights Group, the UK Government today announced it has dropped plans to implement Age Verification for viewing adult content online.
The news was included in a statement by Nicky Morgan, secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport — coincidentally released on a day when British media organisations have been feverishly focused on alleged progress towards a Brexit deal.
Referring to the government’s earlier Online Harms White Paper from April this year, which proposed various measures for protecting children against exposure to adult online content, the statement emphasises the importance of policy on online harms being “developed coherently”.
It continues: “The government has concluded that this objective of coherence will be best achieved through our wider online harms proposals and, as a consequence, will not be commencing Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act 2017 concerning age verification for online pornography.
“The Digital Economy Act objectives will therefore be delivered through our proposed online harms regulatory regime.
“This course of action will give the regulator discretion on the most effective means for companies to meet their duty of care.
“As currently drafted, the Digital Economy Act does not cover social media platforms.”
Commenting on the announcement, Labour Party deputy leader Tom Watson, who is also shadow digital, culture, media and sport secretary, said:
““Mistakes, mishaps and multiple delays have characterised this government’s attempts to introduce Age Verification. The government has now dropped the pretence and admitted it isn’t going to implement it after all.
“This whole process has been a shambles, and the government must declare how much public money has been spent on this failed policy.
“The new online harms regulation must not meet the same fate. The government has a moral duty to protect children, young people and other vulnerable groups at risk of online harms. There isn’t time to waste.”
Jim Killock, executive director of UK’s Open Rights Group, which campaigns for digital
rights and has consistently opposed the government’s plans for Age Verification, said:
“Age verification for porn as currently legislated would cause huge privacy problems if it went ahead. We are glad the government has stepped back from creating a privacy disaster that would lead to blackmail scams and individuals being outed for their sexual preferences.
“However,” he cautioned, “it is still unclear what the government does intend to do, so we will remain vigilant to ensure that new proposals are not just as bad, or worse.”
In his report on the announcement, Guardian media editor Jim Waterson recalled the problems that had dogged the government’s attempts to implement Age Verification since it was first proposed in 2015.
For example, there were big questions about the suitability of the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) as an internet regulator. And there were major concerns about allowing UK Age Verification to be run by big US porn businesses with poor data security histories.
Furthermore, said Waterson, the Guardian had demonstrated how easy it was for a “persistent teenager” to sidestep one AV system “in minutes”.
The journalist noted that the final blow to the porn block had come from an unlikely source: the European Union.
“Just weeks before the policy was due to be finally implemented in July, the government realised it had failed to inform the EU of its plans.”
This administrative error was Initially said to require a six-month delay, but Morgan’s announcement today killed it for good.
And of course, there is absolutely no irony to be found in the fact that this was announced “on a day when media attention was focused on the Brexit negotiations”.