Send a Selfie to See Porn? UK Ponders Ways to Age-Gate Adult Sites

As policy makers in the UK develop updated policies regulating pornography on the internet, one approach may require users to send a selfie of their adult selves in order to see adult content. The arbiter of age? AI, of course.

If only 1984 author George Orwell were here to write a sequel titled 2024.

The Online Safety Act 2023, which received Royal Assent on October 26, aims to create a safer internet for UK users, particularly children, by mandating service providers to implement effective age verification. The last of six possible methods proposed involves asking users to take selfies and sending them to the government so an AI can verify that the user is an adult.

The proposal doesn’t specify which AI tools or techniques would be used to evaluate the age of a depicted internet user, only emphasizing “reliability” and that “age assurance methods with a degree of variance have been suitably tested,” including artificial intelligence.

The method must also be derived from a trustworthy source, Ofcom said.

More familiar methods outlined in the draft document include credit card verification, photo-ID matching, digital identity wallets, and mobile network operator checks—each of which must be deemed “highly effective” in determining a user’s age while simultaneously upholding stringent data protection laws.

Ofcom, the UK’s telecoms regulator, is tasked with preventing children from stumbling upon pornographic content and with ensuring that adults have unhindered access to legal content. According to data cited by Ofcom, most of the UK population starts consuming porn at the age of 13, with 27% starting at the age of 11 (27%), and 10% at nine years old.

Given those statistics, the UK’s concerns over ineffective mechanisms being used to verify an user’s age. Self-declaration (clicking a button labeled “I am over 18”), certain online payment methods, and general contractual restrictions have been deemed insufficient for compliance.

However, even the government is not sure whether the use of AI will help solve the problem.

“Currently, we do not have sufficient evidence as to the effectiveness and potential risks of different age assurance methods to recommend specific metrics for assessing whether or not any given age assurance method or process should be considered highly effective,” Ofcom says in its draft consultation.

To address that, Ofcom said it expects service providers to continually refine and update their methods to ensure their accessibility and interoperability, keeping detailed records of their users’ age assurance processes, and ensuring they adhere to data protection laws.

The UK, which has been vocal about not regulating AI to prevent hindering technological advancements, must now grapple with the intersection of innovation and privacy. The notion of using a selfie for age verification on pornographic sites taps into deep-seated fears about Big Brother-esque surveillance and control, and Ofcom is aware of that.

“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,” Dame Melanie Dawes, Ofcom’s Chief Executive, said in an official press release.

Ofcom expects to publish its final guidance in early 2025

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