The government has shelved plans to block access to pornographic websites via age verification technology amidst ongoing concerns from politicians, privacy campaigners and technologists that the policy would have been impossible to implement effectively.

In a written statement from Nicky Morgan, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, published yesterday, the government confirmed that it "will not be commencing Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act 2017 concerning age verification for online pornography."

iStock
iStock

Under the 2017 Digital Economy Act, the government promised to ensure that online pornography sites - not, somewhat crucially, social media sites, which lie beyond the legislation's remit - would be blocked by age verification technology that ensured all users were over the age of 18 – a world-first for a law of this kind.

Morgan is the fifth culture secretary to oversee this policy, and with the ongoing Brexit saga it would appear that the fight over age verification for online pornography was a bridge too far for the time being. Morgan did reiterate the Conservative government's commitment to protecting children online and for the UK to become "a world-leader in the development of online safety technology and to ensure companies of all sizes have access to, and adopt, innovative solutions to improve the safety of their users."

For now though this is nothing more than a verbal commitment.

Before being shelved completely, the new rules were initially delayed back in June after the culture secretary at the time, Jeremy Wright, told the House of Commons that his staff had failed to appropriately notify the European Commission of the new rules.

Read next: Government delays 'porn ban' by six months following unforeseen kink

"In the meantime there is nothing to stop responsible providers of online pornography implementing age verification mechanisms on a voluntary basis and I hope and expect many will do so," he added, optimistically.

Reaction from across the industry

The biggest losers from all of this are the age verification technology vendors that have been busy investing in their technology in order to meet the new requirements.

One such company, OCL, specifically created an age verification mechanism called Portes, which was selected by AgeID – an age verification portal owned by the one of the world's biggest distributor of pornography and operator of the Pornhub and YouPorn websites, MindGeek – ahead of the UK's rollout of the new age verification rules.

OCL CEO Serge Acker told Techworld earlier this year that the company was originally developing a new system for monetising content online, but when he came across the guidelines for age verification in the Digital Economy Act he "realised everything they talked about didn't make sense and was predicated on personal data being shared, like a passport scan. We thought we could develop something better."

Read next: How little-known startup OCL plans to verify UK porn watchers

Now, Acker says: “It is shocking that the Government has now done a U-turn and chosen not to implement Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act 2017.

"This sense of shock is compounded by the fact that the government's decision seems to be based on the critical misunderstanding that technology does not currently exist which protects children, whilst at the same time protects adults' right to access pornography without their privacy being compromised. OCL has already invented the technology that achieves these dual goals of child protection and adult privacy.

Privacy advocates, on the other hand, have celebrated the decision.

Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group told Techworld in a statement: "Age verification for porn as currently legislated would cause huge privacy problems if it went ahead. We are glad the government has stepped back from creating a privacy disaster, that would lead to blackmail scams and individuals being outed for the sexual preferences.

“However it is still unclear what the government does intend to do, so we will remain vigilant to ensure that new proposals are not just as bad, or worse.”

What next?

As hinted at by Killock, this isn't the last you will hear about age verification technology and online pornography, however. Although this specific law will not come into play, the government is working on propositions around the Online Harms white paper, which was published in April and which includes a nebulous "duty of care" requirement on technology companies and content providers to protect vulnerable people from harmful content.

"It proposed the establishment of a duty of care on companies to improve online safety, overseen by an independent regulator with strong enforcement powers to deal with non-compliance," culture secretary Nicky Morgan wrote in her statement.

"Since the White Paper’s publication, the government’s proposals have continued to develop at pace. The government announced as part of the Queen’s Speech that we will publish draft legislation for pre-legislative scrutiny. It is important that our policy aims and our overall policy on protecting children from online harms are developed coherently in view of these developments with the aim of bringing forward the most comprehensive approach possible to protecting children."

One major criticism of the proposed age verification protections proposed in the Digital Economy Act was how it didn't include social media platforms, where the spread of harmful content is arguably most easily accessed by children.

Morgan hinted at this in her statement: "This course of action will give the regulator discretion on the most effective means for companies to meet their duty of care. As currently drafted, the Digital Economy Act does not cover social media platforms," she wrote.

The reality is that for anyone committed to age verification for online pornography, this marks yet another delay to a policy that was first mooted back in 2015. It will take time, and a number of political chips to fall in the right place, for the proposals outlined in the Online Harms white paper to become a reality.

The porn ban is dead, long live the porn ban.