Who opposes on-line age checking and why?

Articles have recently appeared in the Daily Telegraph and on the BBC website  making the claim that age checking, as required under the Digital Economy Act, will drive adolescents towards the dark web. They quote an impact assessment dated March 2017  and based on a draft produced in the previous year – before the products and services being developed in support of BSI PAS 1296  were available for demonstration.

The argument being made is akin to claiming that putting speed cameras on main roads will cause motorists to use side roads as race tracks.

Before dismissing such claims as absurd we need to recognise that there are a number of groups who do not want effective anonymised age, as per the PAS, checking for a variety of reasons.

• the techniques on offer threaten anonymity and privacy. In fact they remove the need for on-line services and/or retailers to collect and maintain intrusive personal data that may leak or be requisitioned by regulatory authorities. This also reduce both the attack profile for organised crime and the risks of fines under the GDPR.

• The techniques undermine the case for big data collection in support of programmatic advertising at a time when reputable businesses are already pulling their on-line advertising budgets because of the filth with which their brands can be routinely associated.

• A distressingly powerful (in Internet lobbying terms) group want their click bait viewed by those of any age to earn fees and/or seek to preserve their ability to prey on those under the age of informed consent. Layers of one-way encryption which prevent access to information other than that a given photo or hashtag refers to some-one above or below a given age are a significant obstacle both to disseminating inappropriate clickbait to minors and to acquiring the identities predators need in order to access age protected services and groom the users.

There are now a variety of age-checking technologies that are “fit for purpose” – if the purpose is:

• to reduce the risk of those using reputable, age-controlled services from being approached and groomed by perverts with false identities.

• to enable those providing “adult” entertainment, on-line gambling or selling alcohol or cigarettes or knives, to greatly reduce the risk of inadvertently serving under-age customers – including using their parent’s credit cards, acquire pre-paid debit cards.

• to make it easier for payment providers and advertiser to avoid penalties for supporting illegal activity ” all pornography providers who do not require age verification will be acting illegally. Payment providers and advertisers are already contractually obliged to disengage their services from any company found to be acting illegally. Once notified of the illegal behaviour, payment service providers and advertisers are be required to disengage from non-compliant pornography sites.” –

The information to credibly impersonate most of us can be acquired quite cheaply over the dark net, collected and collated from hacking big databases or overseas call centres. Technologies formerly used to check the identities and authorisations of those with legitimate permission to make high value financial services transactions now have to be used in support of routine bank transactions. They are now available to verify access to age-controlled services.

Of course nothing is 100%. If intelligent and intellectually curious youngsters are already into on-line misbehaviour they can access material over the dark web, just as they can supplement their pocket money by acting as money mules or as foot soldiers for organised on-line criminal networks. Hence the need to identify the brightest and best, to recognise and reward their abilities as “cyber prefects” and to harness then as potential security industry high fliers or state sponsored cyberwarriors, before they turn to the dark side – or are recruited by overseas powers.

Interestingly age verification is one of the few high-tech services where Britain leads the world with US and Pacific Rim Countries looking to adopt the secure, anonymised, “low data” solutions developed for the new legislation, already available for demonstration to MPs and Officials and ready for use as soon as the legislation is passed.

The reason is for the UK lead is that commercial “adult entertainment” providers are strong supporters of robust anonymised age checking. They have no wish to attract those who cannot pay and every reason to prevent being undercut by those peddling free porn as click bait. The UK licensed on-line gambling providers are similarly strong supporters. Then come those selling age-controlled products (alcohol, knives, tobacco etc.) and those delivering them who wish to abide by the law. They also have increasing global support from those wishing to provide safe, child and family friendly on-line environments.

Much of the opposition comes from the click bait industry – which until the revolt of the advertisers , often did not measure or care where the clicks came from. That is now changing, although we v an argue whether the actions under way are much more than cosmetic. But part undoubtedly comes from those  who brought the National Council for Civil Liberties into disrepute in 1976. That community appears to wish to preserve the right to get unchecked on-line access to children to corrupt, groom and abuse and to be fighting a determined rearguard action to do so, using a variety of obfuscations, as in the 1970s, to disguise their true motives and mislead reputable organisations.

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