After much planning, hand-wringing, and discussion, the government recently announced that the new age verification laws, otherwise known as the Digital Economy Act 2017 (AKA UK Porn Block), will come into force on July 15.
Debate around the dangers of the internet is a conversation as old as the internet itself. This is because pinpointing sensitive content is often akin to finding a needle in a haystack. And, even in spaces where age verification techniques are used, it’s always been relatively easy to circumvent.
This internet has made viewing sensitive or emotionally distressing content as easy as a few clicks. For children or vulnerable people in particular, this could have potentially devastating repercussions. But how do you tackle regulation with a space as large as the web?
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After much planning, hand-wringing, and discussion, the government recently announced that the new age verification laws, otherwise known as the Digital Economy Act 2017, will come into force on July 15.
Although the laws have been met with widespread criticism (and often with good reason, especially related to privacy) we must remember that the implementation isn’t with a view to remove peoples’ freedom of speech, restrict their internet use or exploit privacy and personal data. Instead, it’s there to protect those who need it.
That’s not to say the new law is a silver bullet. In fact, it’s probably not going to be the perfect solution from day one, but it’s a move in the right direction.
PortesCard: ‘What’ you are, not ‘who’ you are
The debate around the cultural implications of the new law is a minefield of diametrically opposed opinions – and the implications of individual solutions is another debate altogether. But all these solutions and debates are designed to help consumers access age-suitable content.
Unfortunately, most age verification techniques often treat privacy as a nice-to-have rather than a right, typically requiring users to hand over personal information, such as copies of passports or credit card data, before they can access the content they want.
However, much of the cynicism stems from an overall confusion about what’s involved with available solutions. The PortesCard, sometimes referred to as the “porn pass” (although not an entirely accurate title; it does much more than just age verification), is one of the solutions which has been developed to require minimal data when purchased.
The Portes pass can be purchased at your local shop, with the vendor verifying your age there and then. You can then input a one-time code into the Portes app which transfers your age status to the device, allowing you to access age-restricted content without handing over any further ID, personal data or accompanying information.
Portes effectively only ‘knows’ a binary status of its users, which verifies that they are old enough to access age-restricted content. It does not require information such as who you are or where you are to do so. The key is that the app and the servers store no data at all, so there’s no data ‘honeypot’ that can be hacked or divulged.
Protection beyond pornographic content
Age Verification solutions are simplistic, almost by design. But although the technology has been dubbed the “porn pass”, the PortesCard was conceived with far broader uses beyond age verification. You will also be able to use Portes status verification technology to access or buy age-restricted materials such as alcohol or knives.
It will also allow you to prove you are human without the act of giving away a whole host of personal information that’s usually involved with well-known tools like reCaptcha. Portes will be able to prove you’re human and ultimately even be there as a replacement option for logins, passwords, and two-factor authentication combinations; all without the collection or storage of personal data.
Age verification solutions do tend to generate a lot of questions, especially where there are grey areas. For instance, where age verification solutions rely on account creation, it’s easy for children to access sensitive content through their parents’ accounts. This approach is bound to give rise to a number of horror stories where the consequences of these young people accessing particular content are unimaginable.
To counter this, and to prevent under-18s from simply obtaining a code from someone who’s older (a friend or a relative, for example), the Portes app allows parents to install the app on their kids' devices and then activate a "lock".
This means that any code activated on that device can be immediately burned and parents can be sure their children can’t access age-restricted content on the numerous sites that use Portes for age verification. Further developments will make these parental controls even more useful, without resorting to the kind of shady practices that have landed quite a few parental control apps in hot waters with Apple in the last few weeks.
Some companies, such as Amazon, have attempted to resolve the issue by integrating parental controls into the site, this doesn’t always have the desired impact. As many have suggested, a large part of successfully protecting young people comes from education, both of children and of parents on the dangers of the internet and how to keep safe online, the challenge being that parents don’t always have the tools to do so.
Ultimately, companies need to remain mindful of all users when utilising parental controls – avoiding scenarios where people get blocked out when they shouldn’t be, because of false positives or overzealous filters which pickup the wrong signals -censorship is never far in such a context. They should also be mindful of all users in terms of risking insensitivity. As with the Amazon incident, some may be quick to scrutinise the platforms that aren’t quite getting it right.
Ultimately, it’s about protecting those who may be impressionable, and allowing parents to have greater transparency over what their children can access when using the internet. It all starts with emphasising the importance of education so that positive change can come into effect sooner.
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- Serge Acker, CEO of OCL (creator of the PortesCard)