Isn’t Age Verification a hacker’s charter? Won’t it lead to data leaks and identity theft, to a privacy disaster, blackmail scams, etc.?

This is one of the most common objections to age verification. It’s understandable that porn users are sensitive about issues of privacy and security, which is perhaps why scare-mongering arguments about the potential risks of age verification are so pervasive. 

The fact is that there is no solid ground for these fears. As England’s Children’s Commissioner Rachel De Souza puts it, age verification technology is so good that “privacy issues are no longer a concern”. Iain Corby, head of the Age Verification Providers Association, emphasises how the new age verification technology has been “very, very carefully constructed with privacy by design.”1  Based on telephone conversation between Iain Corby and Naomi Miles in September 2020

All user data would be carefully encrypted and handled by independent third party age verification providers, who would not even need to retain it once they’d issued an age check. No data means no hacking. On the other hand, it’s worth pointing out that porn sites harvest a huge amount of user data, and 93% of them pass this data on to third parties, often without appropriate permission. Perhaps users should redirect their concerns over data leaks and privacy breaches to the websites themselves.

Isn’t Age Verification an attack on civil liberties and a way for the government to censor the web?

Concerns over the curtailing of free speech through the regulation of the internet are extremely important, particularly in light of how rights to free online expression are curtailed in many parts of the world.

However, age verification is not about censorship, but about preventing children (not adults) from being exposed to content that is not only inappropriate, but also deeply harmful. We acknowledge that children are a vulnerable demographic and as a society, we have a responsibility to keep them from harm. Protecting children from pornography is no more a violation of their civil liberty than keeping them from consuming drugs and alcohol. 

As for adults’ rights, age verification does nothing to prevent them from accessing pornography. And is there an argument for being reticent about harnessing the language of “free speech” and “civil liberties” for this self-serving cause.

Isn’t protecting children from porn the responsibility of parents, not governments? 

This is the line of reasoning employed by the porn sites themselves as a means to abdicate all responsibility. Clearly, there is work to be done in raising awareness and in advising parents on ways to keep their children safe online. But the fact is that there’s a limit to what parents can do; many are very aware of the risks and frustrated at not being able to sufficiently protect their children from exposure to pornography shown to them in the playground, for example or by a friend.

Parents recognise that they need help, and we should support them. According to the 2019 BBFC survey, 83% of parents agreed with the statement “there should be robust age-verification controls in place to stop children (under 18s) seeing commercial pornography online”. In The Times, one reader points out the contradictions inherent in critics’ two main arguments: “Amazing how men claim ‘but the kids will find a way round this’ at the same time ask ‘why don’t parents take responsibility’?”

What’s more, placing all safeguarding responsibility on parents means more disadvantaged children (e.g. those in the care system) will tend to be disproportionately impacted by the harms of pornography. 

Isn’t this a “porn block” that will make it harder for adults to access the porn they want?

The media, including the BBC, have been guilty of misrepresenting age verification as a “porn block”, implying that the UK government is somehow undermining adults’ access to pornography. When age verification was first introduced into the Digital Economy Act in 2017 media coverage was unbalanced, foregrounding critics’ concerns about the legislation without addressing them. 

Age verification is about protecting children, not about restricting what adults can do online. It is a vital child protection measure and one that aligns the online and offline worlds. We would never describe the requirement to show ID when purchasing alcohol as a “booze block” because it’s not.

Age verification technology is designed to be as friction-free as possible and not something that will interfere with adults’ ability to access pornography. 

Isn’t this pearl-clutching, virtue signalling nonsense?

We instinctively know that porn is totally inappropriate for children, but few of us realise the extent of its negative effects. Porn isn’t something that just causes momentary awkwardness, confusion or embarrassment in kids; neither is it something that stops being too bad as soon as young people are educated to know the difference between porn sex and real sex.2 “You don’t have to explain every facet of online pornography but you should make it clear what is fantasy, what is acted, and what generally happens in reality.” ZD Net X.Osbourne 18.04.2019 Why the UK’s porn block will backfire spectacularly

Perhaps part of the problem is that some adults don’t realise what’s really at stake. Mainstream porn is hardcore, extreme and violent, and there is no room for us to indulge the notion that watching it is somehow a rite of passage for children as they grow up.

The dawning of free, unlimited hardcore online pornography has been described as the “largest unregulated social experiment in human history.”3  D. Hughes The Internet Pornography Pandemic: “The Largest Unregulated Social Experiment in Human History Christian Apologetics Journal, 12:1 (Spring 2014)  Unfortunately, the porn industry is expert at using ‘complexity arguments’ in the media, deliberately misusing and misrepresenting science to create uncertainty about the real harms. But as Dr Gail Dines of the campaign group Culture Reframed says: “When you look at 30 years of empirical research, anyone who argues that porn does not have a profound impact on the social, emotional, cognitive development of kids is akin to a climate change denier.”4  The Guardian, J.Doward, Adults only: the battle to keep online pornography from Britain’s children

We know that children and adolescents are disproportionately vulnerable to the negative consequences of exposure to sexually explicit material. Looking into studies that have investigated the effects of frequent pornography consumption in adolescents, researcher Eric Owens of West Chester University and his colleagues compiled a list of associated behaviours.5  W. Owens, R. Behun, J. Manning, R.Reid, The impact of internet pornography on adolescents: a review of the research, Sex Addict Compulsivity, vol. 19, 2012, pp. 99–122; F. Jensen and A.Nutt, The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guild to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults, New York, 2015); T. Doremus-Fitzwater, E.Varlinskaya, and L. Spear, Motivational Systems in Adolescence: Possible Implications for Age Differences in Substance Abuse and Other Risk-Taking Behaviors Brain and Cognition, vol. 71(1), 2010

These included:

» attitudes towards sex that regard it as primarily physical and casual, rather than affectionate and relational

» greater sexual uncertainty due to dissonance between the sexual attitudes and beliefs communicated through pornography and those instilled by families or schools

» beliefs that pornography can contribute to a more stimulating sex life 

» stronger preoccupation with sex to the exclusion of other thoughts; high levels of distraction

» less progressive gender role attitudes for both males and females; acceptance of the narrative of male dominance and female submission 

» increased likelihood that adolescents, regardless of gender, would regard women as sex objects, sexual playthings, eager to fulfil male sexual desires

» positive attitudes toward casual or recreational sex, uncommitted sexual exploration and extramarital sexual relations

» increased likelihood of having casual intercourse with a friend, group sex, oral sex, anal sex and using drugs or alcohol during sex

» earlier reported ages for sexual intercourse 

» among boys, increased sexual harassment of female peers

» increased insecurity for boys about their ability to perform sexually6 E.Taylor (2018) Pornography as a Public Health Issue: Promoting Violence and Exploitation of Children, Youth, and Adults Dignity: A Journal on Sexual Exploitation and Violence: Vol. 3: Iss. 2, Article 8. DOI: 10.23860/dignity.2018.03.02.08

Why are we even bothering trying to regulate the internet? 

It’s interesting that many of us assume that, because it’s not regulated in the same way as the offline world, the internet simply can’t be regulated. This is perhaps no accident: the internet developed within a world  that shunned regulation as the enemy of the new individual and collective freedoms it heralded. Clinical psychologist Dr Elly Hanson notes: “This view and its encompassing anarchist mystique have been prominent in media coverage and academic analysis of new technologies, promoting an idealized view of the lawlessness of the internet as both anti-authoritarian and radically democratic, despite it being anything but.”7 Ibid

The UK government’s Online Safety Bill is intended to address the serious and growing concerns around the harms of the internet, particularly for children. Like others around the world, it wants to “usher in a new age of accountability for tech and bring fairness and accountability to the online world.” Tech companies, many of which have swollen into global behemoths, are under increasing pressure to take their safeguarding responsibilities seriously. Change is coming: undoubtedly, it’s too late and too slow, and there will always be a problem with certain dark corners of the web. But a fatalistic attitude that refuses to harbor even the hope of change will not serve us. 

What’s the point in Age Verification when tech-savvy teens will just use VPNs to get around it?

Nobody is arguing that Age Verification is a solve-all silver bullet; determined teenagers may well find a way around it. 

But Age Verification will protect the majority of children and teenagers who stumble upon porn by accident, as Baroness Floella Benjamin observes. 

“The argument that children are clever enough to get round the age gate is ludicrous. We are not talking about 15-year-old computer wizards but about six- and seven-year-olds inadvertently accessing porn. In addition, the idea that, as an alternative to age verification, we should teach children about porn at such a tender age is completely outrageous.” 

Baroness Floella Benjamin, OBE

What’s more, just because determined teenagers find their way around other laws (e.g. age checks on alcohol purchases) doesn’t make us doubt the value of those laws. They at least communicate the message that as a society, we do not accept their viewing of pornography as normative, safe or ‘neutral’. As psychologist Elly Hanson puts it, “[c]hildren and young people, consciously and unconsciously, constantly look to adults for guidance around where the lines between safety and risk lie.” 

Hanson points out that there’s “a wealth of research in the field of public health supports the intuitive fact that when you make something harder for people to do, fewer people do it.” Age Verification provides a ‘bump in the road’ that will cause young people to think twice before accessing porn. 

In reality, huge investments have been made in age technology; that it is extremely effective – and it’s ready now. We mustn’t make perfect the enemy of the good.8 Age Verification Providers Association Briefing for Parliamentarians 20 Feb 2020 

Isn’t porn being unfairly singled out when there’s so much other dangerous content for children online?

The notion that children should be kept safe online from a spectrum of websites broader than merely porn sites is already being addressed by the UK government in its Online Safety Bill. This is welcome. But keeping kids off adult websites where the known risks are high surely has to be a priority. Parents, teachers, healthcare professionals and practitioners are all deeply concerned about the devastating impact of online porn on children and young people. We have a duty to implement robust age verification measures to protect our most vulnerable population from the harms wreaked by a predatory industry.