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.