UK government is threatening to block porn sites unless they verify users' ages - again

Porn sites could face being blocked in the UK if they don't check how old their users are.
Porn sites could face being blocked in the UK if they don't check how old their users are.   -   Copyright  Charles Deluvio/Unsplash
By Tom Bateman  with AP

The British government has announced plans to restrict access to online porn by requiring all websites that publish it to verify their users are over 18.

Part of the United Kingdom's upcoming Online Safety bill, the draft legislation could mean that visitors to porn sites need to prove their age via a credit card check or a third-party age verification service.

Sites could be fined up to 10 per cent of their annual global turnover if they do not comply. They could also be blocked in the UK and their owners held criminally liable.

The UK previously tried to introduce proof of age checks for online porn in 2019, but the idea was dropped after opposition to the plans on privacy grounds, administrative errors and difficulties implementing the complex system.

Critics previously voiced fears that an age verification system would effectively create a database of porn users, opening people up to the risk of blackmail and other privacy violations.

Jim Killock, director of digital rights organisation Open Rights Group, said the new proposals announced on Tuesday looked set to repeat the past.

"There is no indication that this proposal will protect people from tracking and profiling porn viewing. We have to assume the same basic mistakes about privacy and security may be about to be made again," he said.

Closing the loophole

In its statement announcing the plans, the UK government said it would not specify particular methods of age verification, but expected companies to "not process or store data that is irrelevant to the purpose of checking age".

The new provisions mean the Online Safety bill would now cover all commercial pornography sites, closing what children's charity the NSPCC called the "Onlyfans loophole".

The draft bill goes further than the government's 2019 attempt to restrict access to porn as it now includes social media platforms in its scope.

"Parents deserve peace of mind that their children are protected online from seeing things no child should see," the UK's digital minister Chris Philp said.

Before Tuesday, the government's draft Online Safety bill left commercial pornography sites the option of arguing they should not be covered by the rules as under-18s did not make up a large portion of their users.

"We are now strengthening the online safety bill so it applies to all porn sites to ensure we achieve our aim of making the internet a safer place for children," Philp said.

But, Open Rights Group's director questioned what the limit of the proposals would be.

"The proposal could force people to age verify before using Google search or reading Reddit. This appears to be a huge boon to age verification companies, for little practical benefit for child safety, and much harm to people’s privacy," Killock said.