U.K. proposes AI-based age-check guidance to protect children from online pornography

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5th December 2023 – (London) The U.K. government has presented new age-check guidance aimed at safeguarding children from accessing pornography online. One of the suggestions involves utilising artificial intelligence (AI) technology to determine whether a viewer appears to be of legal age.

The recently enacted Online Safety Act mandates that websites and applications displaying or publishing pornographic content ensure that children are not exposed to such material. The legal age for watching pornography in Britain is 18 and above.

According to a study conducted by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England in 2021-2022, children, on average, first encounter online pornography at the age of 13. Alarmingly, nearly a quarter of children come across such content by the age of 11, with one in ten encountering it as young as 9.

The CEO of media regulator Ofcom, Melanie Dawes, emphasised the expectation for all services to provide robust protection to prevent children from stumbling upon pornography. She also stressed the importance of balancing privacy rights and freedoms for adults to access legal content.

Ofcom’s proposed guidance includes the use of facial age estimation through AI analysis of a viewer’s features. This approach would likely involve taking a selfie on a device and uploading it for verification purposes.

The regulatory body also suggested photo identification matching, which would require users to upload a photo ID such as a passport or driving license to verify their age. Additionally, credit card checks and the concept of open banking were proposed. Open banking would enable users to consent to their banks sharing information with online pornographic sites to confirm that they are over 18.

However, the Institute of Economic Affairs, a free-market think tank, raised concerns about mandatory age verification, arguing that it could compromise user privacy and expose individuals to breaches and abuse by increasing the volume of sensitive data held by third parties.

Ofcom stated that other methods, such as self-declaration of age, online payment methods that do not require proof of age, and disclaimers or warnings, would no longer meet the standards outlined in the new guidance.

The final guidance from Ofcom is expected to be published in early 2025, after considering various factors and stakeholders’ input.