Things can only get better – Alastair Graham, CEO
Reflecting on 2020, D:Ream’s song “Things can only get better” has been coming to mind. Not too optimistically I hope, I’m looking forward to what 2021 will bring for our business in the age verification and online child protection sector.
The pandemic itself will of course continue to impact businesses around the world. There is an increasing demand for companies to fulfill online orders. Naturally, for age-restricted goods and services, there will continue to be a strong demand for high quality, independent age-verification services.
But more broadly over the next 12 months, there are several new pieces of legislation coming into force that will rapidly accelerate the adoption of age verification. In fact, I will put my neck out and predict that by the end of this year a significant proportion of UK websites that carry any content considered harmful to children will be deploying some form of age assurance.
The first of these new laws to impact will be the Audio-Visual Media Services Directive (AVMSD) which I wrote about this last month. It will require any video sharing platform which is established within the European Union or the UK to implement age checks to prevent minors from seeing unsuitable material. This will affect sites as diverse as YouTube and Pornhub, as well as popular apps such as TikTok, from the summer.
The second regulation to take effect will be the Age Appropriate Design Code, also known as the Children’s Code, which has, in fact, already been the law since September last year. The Information Commissioner’s Office has said that it will only begin to enforce the provisions of this statutory guidance from September 2021. Not only does this require websites that may have a negative effect on the mental or physical well-being of a child under 18 to ascertain if their users are indeed a child but, furthermore, it requires websites to discern the different age-ranges of children so that only material appropriate to their approximate age can be seen when they are online. This is presenting a new challenge for the age verification industry because typically our existing data sources only allow us to check if a user is an adult or not. However, this is certainly not an insurmountable challenge and one which the sector is stepping up to meet.
And the third major influence will be from a law that is not yet drafted, let alone passed. However, the UK Government’s new Online Safety Bill is due to be subjected to pre-legislative scrutiny over the course of the next year by a joint committee of both Houses of Parliament. In anticipation of that legislation, many online platforms and apps will be taking proactive measures to assuage the concerns of policymakers in the hope that the new laws will be less damaging to their business models than they might otherwise be. For many, this will mean voluntarily adopting age assurance measures. For example, the online dating industry which already applies a voluntary minimum age may be well advised to firm up this requirement and implement standards-based, independent age-verification, as this could potentially remove them from the attentions of regulators who might otherwise assert their own code of practice.
But it is the combination of all three of these, and the fact that the UK is not alone in progressing new legal requirements, that will mean that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts when it comes to the impact on our online lives. We are fast approaching the tipping point where it is the norm for a website to be aware of the age of each of its users whenever they come onto the site. To preserve privacy, particularly for children, it should only be the age that is known. To do this in a cost-effective and efficient manner with a minimum level of interruption to the user journey requires a coordinated effort based on widely accepted standards to promote the ubiquitous provision of age assurance options by an open and competitive market.
AgeChecked will be working intensively, including through our trade body, the Age Verification Providers Association, to take full advantage of these market opportunities as we all make the transition to this new online world, where, as they don’t say at the Cheers Bar in Boston, ‘everybody knows your age’.