Social media firms will have to introduce compulsory age checks using official ID such as passports or biometrics like fingerprints under proposals by the children’s commissioner.
Rachel de Souza has been commissioned by Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden and Education Secretary Gavin Williamson to help draw up plans to ensure the tech giants verify the age of their users to prevent children accessing porn and other “harmful” content.
Rachel de Souza, the children's commissioner
In an exclusive interview with The Telegraph, she said social media firms would be expected to introduce “strong” age verification voluntarily – or face legislation requiring them to do so, as has already been introduced in France and Germany.
She is meeting the social media bosses this week to press them to take tougher action to end the widespread flouting by children of the 13-year-old age limit on social media sites. “Ultimately, platforms cannot protect children online unless they know who the children are,” said Ms de Souza.
She said the Government’s planned new duty of care laws were not strong enough because they do not mandate age checks. The online harms Bill says only that the firms are expected to use a range of tools which “might” include age verification or age assurance to protect children.
The regulator Ofcom will also only be able to “recommend” that social media giants use age assurance or verification technology, but not compel them to do so.
Pornography is mentioned just once in the Bill and then only in reference to the Government’s decision to abandon compulsory age verification for adult sites to bar under 18s. It means commercial porn sites that do not have user-uploaded content will fall outside the scope of the Bill.
Age verification would require children to provide a photo of an official ID such as a passport or school or NHS number which could be checked against official databases.
Duty of Care campaign | Read more
The technology is well developed and could be implemented at scale while that for age estimation is not as advanced but quickly catching up, according to the commissioner’s research.
It focuses on behaviour such as scanning a child’s language or uses biometric data such as height, gait, facial features, keystroke dynamics or finger and palm prints to identify a particular person.
The Commissioner has outlined three alternative legislative options for the Government which would see porn sites required to introduce age verification and social media firms held to account by a legally-enforced code of practice.
“I would argue for a strong form of age verification to protect children from accessing some really damaging material. It’s not like when we were kids, just seeing a magazine on a top shelf. It’s really serious stuff that’s affecting them and it’s our responsibility to do something about it,” she said.
“Wouldn’t it be great if the tech companies did that voluntarily and took their responsibilities seriously, rather than try to avoid it. Surely, they don’t want children accessing this stuff online. They just need to bite the bullet on this one.”
Ms de Souza has already met the bosses of the biggest porn sites who she said did not want children on their platforms and were ready to introduce age verification provided it was industry-wide.