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16 February 2016updated 01 Jul 2021 1:29pm

Could age checks really keep kids away from online porn?

Regulating the internet seems a fool’s errand – but if it worked for online gambling, it could work for porn. 

By Barbara Speed

Porn sites will soon need to check for proof of age before letting internet users view their sites. It was a manifesto pledge for the Tories in 2015, and today, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport launched a public consultation around its plans “to protect children from online pornography“. 

The initial reaction from most of us to this news is obvious: it won’t work. The internet, famously, is very hard to regulate, and, thanks to disputes around how to legislate around sites hosted and viewed round the world, it’s unclear how you would even go about doing so.

But what’s surprising is that the people behind big-business online porn – they’re more corporate, and there’s fewer of them, than you might imagine – are already planning how they’ll implement age checks. And there’s a chance they might actually work.

.porn, .sex, .xxx 

Oddly enough, the technology which could make age checks possible (and workable) for online porn was actually developed for use on government websites.

“Verify” was created to allow government websites cross-check your identity with bodies like the Royal Mail or insurance companies. You probably used it when you filed your tax return. 

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Checking age is easier than verifying someone’s entire identity, and Dr Rachel O’Connell, government adviser and founder of tech consultancy Trust Elevate, says her consultancy now has a license to develop a version of Verify for the commercial sector. This could be used by porn sites, but even for retail sites when they deliver alcohol or sharp objects, for example.

Based on advice from privacy experts, Verify, and future similar platforms, obscures the identity of the person seeking identity, plus the nature of the site they’re visiting.

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O’Connell is also working with the domain operators behind the porn sites themselves to bring the verification service to market. One is the ICM registry, which owns all “.xxx”, “.sex”, and “.porn” domains, and accounts for a huge proportion of online porn. “I’m impressed by the willingness of companies to get involved,” O’Connell says. Porn is big business, and it’s in the interests of those involved to comply with legislation. 

O’Connell also predicts that the porn sites might tweak their business model to make room for the age checks, which can cost from 50p a pop on gambling sites, by using micropayments which could then also be used to pay for content.

There’s a chance that this first step in regulating porn sites could improve the porn industry as a whole. It’s likely that some sites will fly under the radar and won’t comply with new laws, but the division could make it easier for consumers to choose those more legitimate sites which don’t allow minors. There could be room for other industry badges of approval – on actor safety or use of condoms, for example – all of which could help viewers make more ethical choices.

Hedging their bets

So will any of it work?

While the consultation needs to face up to the privacy and territory issues surrounding the proposed legislation, age verification checks have worked in the past. 

It’s worth comparing the case of online porn with gambling. It, too, erupted with the rise of the internet. It, too, seemed impossible to regulate. But the Online Gambling Bill, introduced in 2004, stipulated that it must carry out age checks. And now, most sites use them effectively.

O’Connell tells me that the case of online porn is almost a “repetition” of the gambling issue. “At first, there was some kicking and screaming about the regulations. But then sites just said ‘OK, we have to comply.’” Let’s hope the same is true of porn sites. 

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