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UK is Taking Aim at Tech Firms on Sensitive Content: it’s Time to Improve Age Verification

Fergal Parkinson

5 min read
An image displaying a keyboard key with "18+" on it, accompanied by text: "The UK is Taking Aim: It’s Time to Wise up on Age Verification" by Fergal Parkinson, with a "Read Now" button and the tmt id logo.
  • Regulator Ofcom is in the final stages of drawing up strict new rules on adult content and children
  • High-profile murder case of Brianna Ghey made her mother an influential campaigner
  • UK is drawing up tightest rules yet and could dish out gigantic fines for breaches
  • Other countries look certain to follow if the British crackdown is seen as a success
  • Here’s what you can do to future-proof your platform against being hit

For social media and online search platforms, the storm clouds have been gathering for years – and now it looks like there’s finally going to be a hard rain.

I’m talking about the vexed question of adult content being readily available to children and the increasingly glaring fact that there’s going to be a reckoning for those who don’t take serious steps to stop this.

The murder of a teen has proved a tipping point

And perhaps the case that will become emblematic when we look back on this period will be the murder of Brianna Ghey.

Brianna, who was transgender, was 16 when she was stabbed to death last February. It later transpired that one of her killers, who was just 15 at the time, had been able to access what’s called the dark web – an encrypted internet browser haunted by criminals. There she had watched real-life ‘snuff’ videos, depicting torture and murder, which contributed to her fantasy of killing Brianna; a fantasy, which, in partnership with a fellow 15-year-old, she then acted out for real.

Since the murder and the ensuing convictions, Brianna’s mother, Esther Ghey, has become a prominent and articulate campaigner on the issue of children accessing adult content online.

Admittedly some of the issues she’s campaigning on look unlikely to become policy any time soon – she has launched a petition, for example, calling for smartphones to be prohibited for children under the age of 16; that’s likely to be a step too far for government for now.  But much of what Ghey says does chime not just with wider public opinion but with that of policy-makers too.

The clearest sign yet that her views are becoming mainstream in government circles came in a round of recent announcements and media statements by the regulator, Ofcom.

The regulator will target sites popular with teens

A law has already been passed by Parliament, The Online Safety Act, and Ofcom is now consulting on how it will be implemented – with the window for submissions closing in weeks.

What seems certain is that Ofcom will be gunning for platforms popular with younger teens, like Instagram, YouTube, TikTok and tens of thousands of smaller platforms – with new warnings about content ranging from depictions of self-harm to pornography and the prospect of huge fines for those who don’t act to restrict access.

And at the heart of this looming sea shift is going to be age verification.

The regulator will soon start pushing tech firms to install better age checks, more robust filters and content rankings – because when the new system comes into force they will have just three months to get their inaugural child safety risk assessments done.

Other countries look likely to follow UK on age controls

The government here has repeatedly said it wants the UK to be the safest place to go online in the world. And you can bet that the rest of the world will be watching all this closely.

If the UK’s aggressive approach to making the tech giants responsible for credible age verification is perceived as a success – then you can guarantee we will quickly see similar policies adopted globally. So all of this is of great importance for anyone in the tech sector anywhere, not just in the UK.

Age verification isn’t rocket science

And it’s an unfolding scenario we at TMT ID are watching with great interest too. Because age verification for customers is one of our core functions.

In fact, it’s pretty straightforward to do it quickly, cheaply and to a very high standard.

At TMT we can verify a user’s age and give assurance based on their live mobile account information, and it doesn’t require anyone to upload or scan documents like a driver’s licence or a passport.

It’s not rocket science – it’s mobile science.

But many platforms – particularly social media platforms – have long resisted insisting on linking a user to a mobile device because they’ve put the growth of user numbers ahead of all other considerations.

It looks like it may now finally change.

Fines for breaches could run to hundreds of millions

Because setting aside any moral and ethical issues involved in the whole question, it’s going to be crucial to have robust protocols for one other big reason: money.

I confidently predict that Ofcom won’t have anything like the resources it would need to investigate every platform out there. Instead, it will go after what it perceives as either easy or high-profile targets, probably a mix of both, and hit them with massive fines – in the hope of scaring everyone else into compliance.

And I mean massive: there’s talk of fines for breaches being as high as 10% of annual turnover. Not profit – turnover. If levied on Instagram, for example, this would cost them something in the region of £350 million at a stroke.

The internet has long been likened to the Wild West. And over the years various administrations have sent in sheriffs to try to clean it up. This latest attempt is unlikely to have much effect on the grimmest, darkest corners of the web – but it might just force its biggest players to make systemic changes.

With Esther Ghey on their case, Ofcom doesn’t look in any mood to back down.

Last updated on May 16, 2024


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