One of the more puzzling aspects of the on-going political debate over Internet censorship (Parental Controls) is the issue of Age Verification, which has some politicians aggressively calling for a system that can verify an Internet user’s age before the ISPs network-level filters can be disabled. But is it even possible and do we really need it?
How do you identify somebodies age on the Internet? Nearly every website in the world would struggle to identify how old any of their visitors actually are, at least not with any real accuracy. Indeed it’s difficult enough to know the real names of your readers, let alone how old they are.
Websites are not passport agencies, they don’t have access to your national insurance details, they can’t see your photo IDs and in any case most wouldn’t want the massive cost and legal responsibility (privacy) that handling such a sensitive commodity tends to entail.
So, for a website, the concept of Age Verification is always one of smoke and mirrors. You can ask a reader what their age is but you have no way of verifying whether what they say is true. As a result no government proposed solution, short of making all your personal data easier to access for website operators (big privacy and cost implications), is going to solve that.
Surely then, it’s easier for the ISPs? Yes, but this is also precisely why Age Verification is actually a moot point for fixed line broadband providers.
One of the most outspoken politicians on how ISPs handle Age Verification is undoubtedly Baroness Howe of Idlicote, a life peer whom earlier this year joined MP Claire Perry and others in criticising the method that some fixed line providers use in order to verify the account holders age.
Baroness Howe said recently:
“The current approach used by the industry involves sending the ISP account holder an email informing them that their filters have been disabled. This presents two problems. First, no age verification takes place before default filters are disabled. Second, it depends entirely on parents reading and acting on these ISP emails immediately.
That this is hugely problematic is eloquently demonstrated by polling published by the charity CARE which demonstrates that one in six parents – approximately two million people – are simply unlikely to read emails from their ISPs. This could enable their children to download completely inappropriate adult content indefinitely. We need to require all ISPs to introduce robust age-verification of the person electing to disable default filters before filters are disabled.”
It all sounds like fair comment, except many ISPs already have a rule that prohibits them from selling the service to minors (i.e. those under the age of 18), which means that generally only an adult will get access to the account password (most ISPs require this before you can change the filter settings) or be able to view the related ISP emails. The adult is then unlikely to share that info. with a young child.
But if a child did manage to order a new broadband or phone service, all for themselves, then you’d probably notice the telecoms engineer, letters, bills and phone calls arriving as part of the setup or installation process. Of course if any of this did go unnoticed then worrying about Internet Age Verification is probably going to be the least of your concerns.
“We do not sell to individuals under 18. We already ask anyone ordering to confirm that they are not under 18. Obviously if OFCOM were to come up with some practical means to verify age on an on-line order we’d be more than happy to consider integrating such a system, but at present we feel it very unlikely that an under 18 could order.
For our type of services it means having access to a phone line (without Internet already) in order to install equipment, or access to allow a phone line to be installed – both of which seem unlikely to go unnoticed by parents in a household. Our services are also unlikely to be cost effective for a minor to purchase.”
Now, ignoring the fact that any child which actually wants to view adult content could easily find a way around such filters (VPN, Proxy Servers etc.) and many already do (here), what other method could be adopted for Age Verification? Ideally without introducing some form of costly national ID system, perhaps requiring home retina or finger print scanners (privacy advocates will love that).