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October 27, 2016

UK Approaches Orwellian Age Verification Scheme

LONDON – Under the familiar guise of “protecting children,” the U.K. government is considering a requirement that all adults who wish to view porn online acquire what the British media are calling a “pornography ID number.”

Parliament’s 2016 Digital Economy Bill redefines pornography and mandates all adult websites, foreign and domestic, verify the ages of visitors before allowing them to view sexually explicit content. Those that do not comply face financial sanctions and blocking at the root level.

Regulators are investigating an age verification scheme that may create a nationwide database of personally identifiable information including names, addresses, ages and other bits — including whether internet users view porn online. Each record would be given an identification number for easy reference.

Too easy, according to the Open Rights Group, a UK organization that works to protect privacy rights and free speech online. The group worries such a database would be vulnerable to hackers who could use the information for nefarious purposes.

Database breaches happen all too often. The infamous Ashley Madison debacle that exposed millions of married men to public humiliation, loss of employment and divorce may be the most notorious, but it is hardly alone. More recently, hackers invaded the Democratic National Committee’s computer system; Wikileaks continues to publish confidential information obtained from that breach and others in an apparent effort to interfere with the U.S. presidential election. Russia, China and North Korea have been accused of sneaking into computerized U.S. federal government records.

The potential for exposure isn’t the only thing that concerns the ORG, though. The group also criticizes the proposal for failing to build in a consent provision. The European Union, from which the UK separated earlier this year in a move known as the Brexit, enforces strict privacy laws, including a requirement that personal information cannot be collected without the knowledge and consent of the person the information identifies. According to the ORG, the UK age-verification proposal now under consideration would take information without asking, or by forcing people to comply with data collection under threat of losing their internet privileges. That opens an enormous hole in the system, ORG argues.

“Data protection law is simply not designed to govern situations where the user is forced to agree to the use of highly intrusive tools against themselves,” the group states on its website. “If the government wants to have age verification in place, it must mandate a system that increases the privacy and safety of end users, since the users will be compelled to use age verification tools.

“Also, any and all age verification solutions must not make Britain’s cybersecurity worse overall, e.g. by building databases of the nation’s porn-surfing habits which might later appear on Wikileaks,” the statement added.

Even worse than the privacy nightmare just waiting to happen under current age verification proposals: There is no reason to believe such a system would work, the ORG notes. With every generation, minors become more technologically sophisticated. The organization asks a good question: Even with an Orwellian age-verification scheme in place, what’s to prevent “an even slightly determined teenager from accessing pornography [or] reduce demand for it among young people”?

“The Government appears to be looking for an easy fix to a complex social problem,” the ORG notes on its website. “The internet has given young people unprecedented access to adult content, but it’s education rather than tech solutions that are most likely to address problems arising from this. Serious questions about the efficacy and therefore proportionality of this measure remain.”

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