UK government proposes controversial measures to protect children online

The measures, to be introduced in the Online Safety Bill, will require ‘all sites that publish pornography to put robust checks in place to ensure their users are 18 years old or over’. This will apply to commercial providers of pornography, as well as sites that allow user-generated content (e.g. social media, video-sharing platforms).

If the bill is approved as proposed, companies will have to decide on their own what tools to use to prevent children from accessing pornographic content; options indicated by the government include the verification of credit cards or the use of third-party services to confirm users age against government-held data (such as passport data). Companies would need to ensure they are ‘secure, effective, and privacy-preserving’ whatever technologies they use. Failure to act could lead to fines of up to 10% of annual worldwide turnover or even blocking of the services in the UK. 

Critics argue that age verification is not only easy to circumvent (e.g. through the use of VPNs), but can also lead to data breaches: ‘adults would be forced to enter personal information like passport or credit card details – a gift to scammers’, says Daniel Pryor, head of research at the Adam Smith Institute think tank.