As part of the initial research phase, my team and I have been researching the world of age verification for the euCONSENT project. The aim was to ascertain how EU member states protect against minors accessing age restricted products, services and content online. The research was divided into four main areas; alcohol, tobacco, gambling and adult content.
Whilst this is a simple concept in principle, it was a challenging task in practice.
Owing to the present global situation, we were not able to visit member countries in order to gather our own first hand research. Instead we gathered information from media articles, surveys and interviews, and with the use of VPN and extensive web searching. We were also able to speak directly to citizens of such countries as Romania, Poland, Germany and the Czech Republic when particular information merited further investigation. The results, unfortunately, were less than encouraging. Our research brought to light the dire need to improve online protection for children.
We divided our research by product and set about finding out how each member state provides, or lacks, online protection. The challenges we faced were numerous. One of our aims was to discover precisely how the age verification works in practice, rather than simply relying on what is stated in companies’ terms and conditions. As a parent of four children, I personally had hoped to discover much sturdier defences against access to 18+ websites. The processes we found to be in place, in almost all cases, were not fit-for-purpose.
The majority of websites utilise rudimentary ‘age gates’ which are essentially a tick box or a request to input your date of birth. Whilst this method may provide some protection for children who accidentally stumble across such sites or those with a particular proclivity for honesty, it will do little or nothing to prevent children from intentionally accessing adult content.
One of the most interesting methods we encountered was that of French adult site JacquieetMichel. They have developed an inhouse AV solution called My18Pass. When users access the homepage they are required to complete a self-declaration. Upon completion they are taken to a ‘soft’ version of the site with images and thumbnails blurred. In order to access content more robustly, AV is completed either through credit card verification or via a hard identity method: This second solution involves an ID document scan followed by biometric facial analysis.
Compliance with existing laws amongst EU member states is generally poor and whilst some companies have installed certain AV methods, many have no protections at all.
Despite the challenges and disappointments, we remain confident that the euCONSENT project can deliver the change that is so desperately needed in order to protect those in our society that are most vulnerable.