The French government is preparing to unveil an age certification scheme to block access to pornographic websites for minors.
The French Minister for Digital Affairs said in an interview with outlet Le Parisien this weekend (Sunday 5 February) that this "digital certificate" project is to be specified during the coming week and will be implemented "from September."
"2023 is the end of access to pornographic sites for our children," Jean-Noël Barrot, Minister for Digital Affairs, told the daily.
“The first time they access a pornographic site, children are on average 11 years old. Yet it is forbidden in France to expose under-18s to this kind of content. But in reality, it is enough to click on the homepage of these sites, promising to be of age, to discover videos whose content can shock or, worse, traumatise. I intend to put an end to this scandal," announced Barrot.
All adult websites "will have to comply with it under penalty of seeing the broadcasting prohibited on the national territory", said the minister delegate.
"France will be the first country in the world to propose a solution like this".
A digital certificate
Age certification is to be achieved through a "digital certificate."
"This technical solution that we are working on could be used to enforce the age limits that exist in our law, but which are not sufficiently respected online," stressed Barrot.
Currently, pornographic sites ask users to certify their age by entering a date of birth, or by simply clicking an "I am of age" box.
The technical details have not yet been finalized and the implementation could face complications relating to the issue of personal data protection.
Indeed, the aim will be to preserve the anonymity of the user from the point of view of the websites and any legislation requiring adult websites to verify their users' age runs into technical and legal obstacles. This is currently resulting in a legal tug-of-war between audiovisual and platform regulator Arcom and porn websites.
France’s push for online child safety
This news comes in the wake of several shocking deaths due to online harassment and repeated calls for the government to double its efforts to fight cyberbullying and bolster online security.
Lucas, a 13-year-old boy victim of school bullying and homophobic taunts, ended his life on 7 January 2023.
Four thirteen-year-old minors are awaiting a hearing.
"My thoughts are with Lucas, a student at Louis Armand College in Golbey, his family and friends. I am thinking of all the pupils like him who have been harassed: their despair is the basis of my determination to prevent all forms of harassment. No child should find suicide as the ultimate solution," said the Minister of Education, Pap Ndiaye, on Twitter.
The push for more online safeguards is also a direct continuation of the Children Online Protection Laboratory launched in November 2022 by French president Emmanuel Macron, who made the protection of children online one of his top priorities during his re-election campaign.
The Elysée Palace had announced the creation of the initiative to improve safety for minors online across the world, aiming to gather governments, campaigners, NGOs, researchers and tech giants to assess and develop concrete protocols and solutions enabling children to use digital tools safely, and “benefit from their full potential, without being exposed to abuse and harmful content”.
Meta Platforms, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, TikTok and French platform Dailymotion agreed to sign a charter, modeled after the Christchurch Call, a non-binding initiative led by Macron and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern after the 2019 Christchurch terror attacks. It aims to curbing the spread of terrorist material on the internet.
It encompasses privacy protection, the fight against cyberbullying, the proliferation of child sexual abuse material, age verification on adult websites and social networks.
During the 2022 Paris Peace Forum, the global governance summit focusing on tech and digital policy, Amazon stated that they had invested in 2021 more than $900 million and employed more than 12,000 people “dedicated to protecting customers and addressing online misconduct”
“This steadfast focus on customer obsession through a safe and trustworthy shopping experience extends across all areas at Amazon, including child safety. That’s why Amazon became a founding member of the Children Online Protection Lab at this year’s Paris Peace Forum.”
Age verification in the UK and US
While the goal of making it more difficult for minors to access pornography and harmful images is widely shared, the various plans to introduce age verification around the world have also come up against the issue of personal data protection.
The UK is currently debating in Parliament its Online Security Bill, as the government wants to make it compulsory for websites to use reliable age verification technology.
In the southern US state of Louisiana, a law has required since 1 January 2023 that a copy of an ID be presented before entering websites with at least a third of their content "harmful to minors".