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Age Verification Online: What is at stake?

BLOG - 25 June 2020

On Wednesday, June 10, 2020, the French Senate adopted a clause from the draft bill aiming to protect victims of domestic violence, that made age verification compulsory for visitors of pornographic sites. The "CSA" (the Superior Audiovisual Council, which will become the "ARCOM", the Regulatory Authority for Audiovisual and Digital Communication, in 2021), will be in charge of ensuring compliance with this law. It will have the  ability to bring unlawful websites to court, to de-rank them in search engines or even to ask Internet service providers to block access to such websites.

The issue of age verification is a thorny one. In the United Kingdom, the Digital Economy Act of 2017 demanded that the government implement an age verification system, preventing underage audiences from accessing pornographic content. However, the actual application of this system proved to be problematic for several reasons. The project was eventually abandoned on October 16, 2019, in favor of a broader regulation of problematic Internet content, in line with the Online Harms White Paper. The fact that French Parliamentarians are addressing these critical issues is encouraging. However, in order to effectively protect underage Internet users, this measure cannot be applied in isolation.

Technical restrictions can be circumvented

Indeed, any age verification system raises questions about its effectiveness. Adults work hard to set up rules that are immediately bypassed by young people. In the context of Institut Montaigne’s report on young people on the Internet, we observed that 31% of parents of children and teenagers aged 11 to 20 years old set time limits for Internet access (this figure rises to 48% among parents of 11-14 year olds), 28% control the browsing history (45% among parents of 11-14 year olds) and 24% have set up parental control (40% among parents of 11-14 year olds). Yet the focus groups we studied revealed that parent initiatives to limit screen access are taken lightly by 15-to-18-year-olds. The survey also reveals that 41% of young boys and 33% of young girls aged 15 to 17 declared having viewed pornographic content. For children aged 11 to 14, this number reaches 24% of boys and 20% of girls.

Parent initiatives to limit screen access are taken lightly by 15-to-18-year-olds.

Regarding access to pornographic content, today it is very simple to use a virtual private network (VPN), so that one's computer simulates a connection from a location outside of France, thus bypassing national legislation.

The challenge of collecting personal data

Moreover, age verification systems raise questions about access to personal and sensitive data. One should therefore ensure that these systems do not re-use collected data. It is easy to understand that when the proposal was made to use FranceConnect (the French access portal to various public services, including tax and social protection services) to collect such data, it was greeted with surprise, if not suspicion. Why take the risk of granting access to such data to an organization that is so closely related to national public services?

Suggested methods of age verification include the purchase of access passes in official points of sale, or the obligation to enter one's bank details. In Institut Montaigne’s report on young people on the Internet, we also proposed to test the feasibility of an age verification system which would be offered to parents as an option at the time the device is purchased, configuring an unmodifiable setting of the smartphone, tablet or computer’s operating system. This recommendation would make it possible to focus exclusively on minors, thus limiting the risk of collecting and reusing the personal data of all Internet users.

Developing a broader protection framework for children online

These reasons suggest that online age verification measures cannot be applied in isolation, if we want them to be effective in protecting young people online. Not only is it possible for the system to be circumvented, but also so strongly contested that it will hamper its implementation. While this system points to the right direction in proactively addressing the issue of access to certain online content, this age verification system alone will not protect children and young minors. As pointed out in Institut Montaigne’s report on young people on the Internet, protecting children and teenagers from online risks must be the concern of a multitude of actors, including parents (when possible), the French education system, Internet service providers, the media etc. 

Protecting children and teenagers from online risks must be the concern of a multitude of actors, including parents, the French education system, Internet service providers, the media etc.

This multi-dimensional approach implies a fine understanding of the issues at stake. Today, public authorities have gained some knowledge about children and teenagers’ use of the Internet, but it is still insufficient. This is partly due to the fact that content platforms, whether pornographic or not, remain relatively opaque. For this reason, any measures to protect children online must be part of a more general framework regarding children’s use of the Internet. Public authorities must request that platforms make a greater effort to investigate the use of their services by minors, and to ensure transparency about the conclusions of these investigations and the practical measures taken. For their part, the State and civil society should develop an auditing capacity to ensure the veracity of the information provided by the platforms.

It is by relying on digital players and all stakeholders in the protection of minors that public authorities can develop innovative and effective regulatory frameworks. These demands for transparency and accountability are at the heart of the discussions surrounding the drafting of the Digital Services Act at European level.

 

Copyright : Alain JOCARD / AFP

 

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