The UK’s new Online Safety Bill, passed yesterday (19 Sept), has raised questions among critics about how to prevent age verification from becoming identity verification.
The new law forces social media companies to work harder to protect children from inappropriate content, as well as remove all illegal content.
The bill, which has been heavily amended since its inception, has faced much backlash relating to its age verification requirement.
The Wikimedia Foundation, a nonprofit charitable organisation and online encyclopedia, has criticised the bill, saying “The Online Safety Bill actually jeopardises the best parts of the internet.”
Once the bill receives Royal ascension, sites will have to verify the age of users which requires either government-issued documentation or biometric data to estimate visitors’ ages.
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The World Economic Forum estimated in 2021 that one in every three internet users are aged under 18, with Ofcom estimating that one in three under-aged users have lied about their age to access restricted platforms.
The Open Rights Group warned in September the ‘expensive and untried’ age estimation systems could cause major setbacks for UK users.
Executive director of the Open Rights Group, Jim Killock, said in 2022 statement that the proposals were “a huge boon to age verification companies, for little practical benefit for child safety, and much harm to people’s privacy.”
If the age verification method selected by large platforms is indeed government-issued documents, then the process essentially becomes identity verification instead, which, critics say infringes on data privacy and the right to browse anonymously.
Similarly, how this personal data is stored, for how long and where, raises questions as to whether this data could be shared or sold.
The bill states that sites should “have regard for the importance of protecting UK users from a breach of any statutory provision or rule of law concerning privacy that is relevant to the use of operation.”
In a report published last year, France’s National Commission of Information and Liberty recommended the use of a third-party age verification service to “prevent the direct transmission of identifying data about the user to the site or application offering pornographic content.”
The Commission said, “This need to identify Internet users is, in fact, an issue for privacy and personal data protection, since knowledge of an individual’s identity can then be linked to their online activity.”
One of the largest age verification platforms, Veriff, introduced biometric age verification in March of this year which requires users to submit a selfie for age analysis.
In a blog post, Veriff’s director of content Chris Hopper explained that advanced facial biometric analysis and AI algorithms can be used to estimate a customer’s age without relying on identity documents.
Google, too, currently has an age verification service which requires users to submit a government-issued ID.