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Ofcom sets out online safety guidance

December 5, 2023

Children are set to be protected from accessing online pornography under new age-check guidance proposed by comms regulator Ofcom to help services to comply with online safety laws.

Latest research shows that the average age at which children first see online pornography is 13 – although nearly a quarter come across it by age 11 (27 per cent), and one in 10 as young as 9 (10 per cent). Additionally, nearly eight in 10 youngsters (79 per cent) have encountered violent pornography depicting coercive, degrading or pain-inducing sex acts before turning 18.

Under the Online Safety Act, sites and apps that display or publish pornographic content must ensure that children are not normally able to encounter pornography on their service.

To do this, they must introduce ‘age assurance’ – through age verification, age estimation or a combination of both – which is ‘highly effective’ at correctly determining whether a user is a child or not. Effective access controls should prevent children from encountering pornographic content on that service.

Highly effective methods of age assurance

Ofcom’s job is to produce guidance to help online pornography services to meet their legal responsibilities, and to hold them to account if they don’t. Ofcom’s draft guidance sets strict criteria which age checks must meet to be considered highly effective; they should be technically accurate, robust, reliable and fair.

Ofcom also expects services to consider the interests of all users when implementing age assurance. That means affording strong protection to children, and taking care that privacy rights are safeguarded and adults can still access legal pornography.

Given the technology underpinning age assurance is likely to develop and improve in future, Ofcom’s guidance includes a non-exhaustive list of methods that it currently considers could be highly effective. These include:

  • Open banking. A user can consent to their bank sharing information confirming they are over 18 with the online pornography service. Their full date of birth is not shared.
  • Photo identification matching. Users can upload a photo-ID document, such as a driving licence or passport, which is then compared to an image of the user at the point of uploading to verify that they are the same person.
  • Facial age estimation. The features of a user’s face are analysed to estimate their age.
  • Mobile network operator age checks. All UK mobile providers automatically apply a default content restriction which prevents children from accessing age-restricted websites. Users can remove this restriction by proving to their mobile provider that they are an adult, and this confirmation is then shared with the online pornography service.
  • Credit cards checks. In the UK, credit card issuers are obliged to verify that applicants are over 18 before providing them with a credit card. A user can provide their credit card details to the online pornography service, after which a payment processor sends a request to check the card is valid to the issuing bank. Approval by the bank can be taken as evidence that the user is over 18.
  • Digital identity wallets. Using a variety of methods, including those listed above users can securely store their age in a digital format, which the user can then share with the online pornography service.

Weaker age-checks won’t be enough

Ofcom is also clear that certain approaches to age assurance won’t meet the standards set under Ofcom’s draft guidance. These weaker methods include:

  • self-declaration of age;
  • online payment methods which don’t require a person to be 18 (Debit, Solo, or Electron cards, for example); and
  • general terms, disclaimers or warnings.

In addition, Ofcom specifies that pornographic content must not be visible to users before, or during, the process of completing an age check. Nor should services host or permit content that directs or encourages children to attempt to circumvent age and access controls.

“Pornography is too readily accessible to children online, and the new online safety laws are clear that must change,” stated Dame Melanie Dawes, Ofcom’s Chief Executive. “Our practical guidance sets out a range of methods for highly effective age checks. We’re clear that weaker methods – such as allowing users to self-declare their age – won’t meet this standard.”

“Regardless of their approach, we expect all services to offer robust protection to children from stumbling across pornography, and also to take care that privacy rights and freedoms for adults to access legal content are safeguarded.”

Attitudes towards age assurance

The vast majority of people (80 per cent on average – 87 per cent of women and 77 per cent of men) are broadly supportive of age assurance on online pornographic sites as a means of protecting children. Women with children are particularly supportive due to concerns about the potential impact of viewing online pornographic content at a young age.

Among adults who have previously viewed pornography online, their biggest concerns about proving their age to access the content are around data protection (52 per cent) and sharing personal information (42 per cent).

Protecting privacy rights and adults’ access to legal content

All age assurance methods are subject to the UK’s privacy laws, including those concerning the processing of personal data. These are overseen and enforced by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), which has assisted Ofcom in developing its guidance.

Under the Online Safety Act, online pornography services are required to keep written records explaining how they protect users from a breach of these laws. Ofcom’s guidance offers practical ways of how they might go about this – including, for example, by conducting a data protection impact assessment, and providing users with privacy information such as how their personal data will be processed, how long it will be retained, and if it will be shared with anyone else.

Ofcom also recommends that services should consult the ICO’s guidance to understand how to comply with the data protection regime, as well as its Opinion on Age Assurance for the Children’s Code, which it expects to be revised in January 2024.

To ensure that adults are not unduly prevented from accessing legal content, Ofcom’s draft guidance also sets out important principles that age assurance should be easy to use and work for all users, regardless of their characteristics or whether they are members of a certain group.

Next steps

Ofcom expects online pornography services to work with it, both as its draft guidance is finalised and beyond, so that they are fully prepared to comply when the time comes. Companies who ultimately fall short will face enforcement action, including possible fines.

Ofcom expects to publish its final guidance in early 2025, after which the Government will bring these duties into force.

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