Regulating the internet is a behemoth challenge, and Nadine Dorries thinks she has the solution. The multi-faceted Online Safety Bill is set to mandate age verification checks for adult content online in order to protect children, among many other radical news measures. It’s a well-intentioned but woefully planned move which will do much more harm than good.
To begin with, the government is making itself the arbiter of which parts of the internet require age verification and which don’t. It says it will target “psychologically harmful content”, which suggests they are not planning to put a wall up around a handful of porn sites and leave it at that. Details on what “psychologically harmful content” actually is are not easy to come by. As things stand, the government looks to be giving itself the authority to block off access to the entire internet, bar CBeebies.
The Online Safety Bill’s new rules would require a vast number of websites to force visitors to declare their identity, resulting in a mass, diffuse, hard-to-regulate surveillance system which could easily be used to track your every move online and link your online activity to your identity. It would be tantamount to creating an online ID card for every adult in the UK.
With concerns about privacy online already on the rise, these measures would take modern society a long way further down the slippery slope towards levels of online surveillance which would have been unimaginable until very recently. Rolling back online privacy in the name of child safety is a tactic routinely deployed by authoritarian states like Russia and China to limit freedom of information and expression. Let’s not mirror that approach in Britain.
This isn’t the first time the government has flirted with the idea of age verification online, and many of the problems highlighted the last time around are still lurking. Back in 2019, the Adam Smith Institute drew attention to a whopping flaw in Theresa May’s so-called ‘porn laws’. MindGeek, set to become the most prominent provider of the soon-to-be legally required age verification services, also happened to be the owner of some of the world’s most popular porn sites including RedTube and YouPorn. How many users of adult websites would be happy merrily sending their passport or driving licence off to that company?
Age verification mandates are not a solution. Frankly, the average ten-year-old is probably more technologically savvy than the average government minister. That’s not to say the government don’t know their IPs from their VPNs, but rather that kids know much more than we think they do. No matter how sophisticated a system we put in place, no matter how tall a wall we build around websites they ought not to be looking at, if anyone can find a way around it, it’s them.
It’s already possible – and easy – to trick online service providers into thinking you’re on the other side of the world, and the innovations in online anonymity will only keep on coming. Compared to the various creative ways both children and adults already use to hide their identities online, standard age verification mechanisms are Stone Age technology.
Add into the equation a state-mandated age verification hurdle to access much of the internet and the incentive will be even stronger to create, market and learn to use VPNs and other tricks, making them even more commonplace than they are now. That would mean Nadine Dorries’ crusade for everyone to verify their identity before going online will probably end up making the internet an even more anonymous place.
The last nail in the coffin of this idea is its raging unpopularity. More than three quarters of adults in Britain would be flat-out opposed to providing their ID online to access adult websites, according to a recent YouGov survey. We all want a safer internet, but not at any cost, and age verification is too littered with crippling flaws to be a catch-all solution. With a general election slowly moving into view on the horizon, the government should reconsider the Online Safety Bill before it’s too late.