Tech

Ofcom: UK watchdog’s bid to age-gate porn ‘creates privacy risks’

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The United Kingdom’s (UK) telecoms watchdog Ofcom has released guidance on how pornographic websites can verify users’ age which a digital rights group has warned “creates serious risks to everyone’s privacy and security”.

On Tuesday (Dec.5) the regulator laid out how the new Online Safety Act compels sites and apps that display porn content to ensure children are not able to consume porn on their service. A noble goal in theory, which every parent would support. However, it won’t be easy to enforce. Stopping tech-savvy youngsters from finding workarounds will be a challenge.

To comply with the new law, which came into force late October, adult sites must introduce ‘age assurance’ – through age verification, age estimation, or a combination of both. Methods could include photo ID matching, facial age estimation, and credit card checks. Ofcom claims they are “highly effective” at correctly determining whether a user is a child or not.

Opposition to Ofcom guidance

Open Rights Group (ORS) – the UK’s largest grassroots digital rights campaigning organization – is not convinced by these new measures.

“Open Rights Group agrees that it is important that children are protected online; however, Ofcom’s proposed guidelines create serious risks to everyone’s privacy and security,” the group’s Programme Manager for Platform Power, Abigail Burke warned.

She continued: “Age verification technologies for pornography risk sensitive personal data being breached, collected, shared, or sold. The potential consequences of data being leaked are catastrophic and could include blackmail, fraud, relationship damage, and the outing of people’s sexual preferences in very vulnerable circumstances. ”

The new guidelines being announced today will soon apply to pornography sites of all sizes if the content has been “published or displayed on an online service by the provider of the service.” The language is vague, but essentially means, they’re designed for professionally made pornography, instead of user-generated content found on sites like OnlyFans.

It will be hard to police this definition. Furthermore, the effectiveness of any age-gate is put at risk by the proliferation of virtual private networks (VPN).  Ofcom’s Online Safety Lead, Gill Whitehead told The Verge even if workarounds exist the measures are still worthwhile to protect children.

Whitehead said: “I think the law and the duty of care on tech firms to keep users safe is part of a wider set of measures that includes education and includes parental conversations with children and all of these things can work together to really help keep children safe online.”

ORS have also been vocal opponents of the UK Government’s Data Protection and Digital Information Bill. Data protection laws are currently some of the most powerful tools available to protect individuals against unfair uses of data and technology in the UK. The Bill will weaken these powers if passed into law.

Featured image: Pixabay

Sam Shedden

Sam Shedden is an experienced journalist and editor with over a decade of experience in online news. A seasoned technology writer and content strategist, he has contributed to many UK regional and national publications.

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