Regulating internet access is a huge challenge. Nadine Dories believes she has the solution. The multi-faceted Online Safety Bill will mandate age verification checks for adult content online to protect children. It’s a well-intentioned but woefully planned move which will do much more harm than good.
To begin with, the government is making itself the arbiter of which parts of the internet require age verification and which don’t. It says it will target “psychologically harmful content”, which suggests they are not planning to put a wall up around a handful of porn sites and leave it at that. Details on what “psychologically harmful content” actually is are not easy to come by. As it stands, the government appears to be giving up the power to block access to the internet in general, except for CBeebies.
The Online Safety Bill’s new rules would require a vast number of websites to force visitors to declare their identity, resulting in a mass, diffuse, hard-to-regulate surveillance system which could easily be used to track your every move online and link your online activity to your identity. It would be equivalent to creating an online identity card for every adult in Britain.
With online privacy concerns on the rise, these measures could lead to modern society sliding further down the slippery slope toward online surveillance levels unimaginable until recent years. Authoritarian countries like Russia and China regularly use online privacy to limit freedom of expression and information. Let’s not mirror that approach in Britain.
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This isn’t the first time the government has flirted with the idea of age verification online, and many of the problems highlighted the last time around are still lurking. In 2019, the Adam Smith Institute drew attention to a whopping flaw in Theresa May’s so-called ‘porn laws’. MindGeek, set to become the most prominent provider of the soon-to-be legally required age verification services, also happened to be the owner of some of the world’s most popular porn sites including RedTube and YouPorn. How many adult website users would happily send their passports or driving licenses to this company?
Age verification mandates do not solve the problem. Truth be told, the average ten-year old is more tech-savvy than the average government minister. That’s not to say the government don’t know their IPs from their VPNs, but rather that kids know much more than we think they do. No matter how sophisticated a system we put in place, no matter how tall a wall we build around websites they ought not to be looking at, if anyone can find a way around it, it’s them.
It’s already possible – and easy – to trick online service providers into thinking you’re on the other side of the world, and the innovations in online anonymity will only keep on coming. Standard age verification mechanisms are Stone Age technology, compared to the many creative ways adults and children use to hide their identities online.
To make VPNs and other techniques more common, add to the mix a state-mandated verification hurdle that prevents you from accessing a lot of the internet. That would mean Nadine Dorries’ crusade for everyone to verify their identity before going online will probably end up making the internet an even more anonymous place.
This idea’s raging unpopularity is the last nail in its coffin. More than three quarters (75%) of British adults would be opposed to providing their ID online in order to access adult websites. accordingAccording to a YouGov poll. We all want safer internet. However, not at any cost. Age verification is too riddled with serious flaws that it can be considered a panacea. With a general election slowly moving into view on the horizon, the government should reconsider the Online Safety Bill before it’s too late.