Age verification in the UK explained

Parents’ guide: How will new law protect children online?

The Government has indicated that it will be introducing new responsibilities on online platforms which host pornography to reduce underage access through age verification. These new measures will form part of the Online Safety Bill, which is soon to be introduced into Parliament.

Inside the guide

What is age verification in law?

Age verification was approved as part of the Digital Economy Act in an effort to address under 18s accessing inappropriate content. However, these plans were dropped and were instead picked up as a part of the draft Online Safety Bill in 2021.

The Government’s aspiration is for the UK to be the safest place to be online. As such, the draft Online Safety Bill includes new responsibilities for online service providers to prevent the spread of illegal material and to protect users, particularly children, from legal but harmful content.

Referencing Internet Matters’ We Need to Talk About Pornography report, Minister Philp confirmed a new legal duty requiring commercial providers of pornography and the sites that allow user-generated pornographic content to have robust checks in place to ensure their users are 18 years old or over.

What is the government’s plan?

The government outlined its ambitions to go beyond the Digital Economy Act in managing children’s access to age-inappropriate content such as online pornography. However, there were concerns that commercial pornography (as opposed to user generated pornography) was out of scope of the plans.

The draft was scrutinised by a Joint Committee and by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee.  Afterwards, Digital Minister Chris Philp announced that age verification measures in the Online Safety Bill would be extended.

How is pornography currently regulated?

There are four types of pornographic material online that the law currently covers:

Extreme Pornography

This is anything that features someone threatening a person’s life, an act that results in serious injury, bestiality or necrophilia. It is illegal to possess these images or videos and carries a sentence of between 2 -3 years as well as a fine.

Indecent Images of children

Indecent images of children are illegal to have, host or watch. Doing so can carry a sentence of up to 9 years imprisonment.

Revenge Pornography

This is when explicit or sexual content of a person is shared without their consent. This can carry a  maximum sentence of 2 years in prison.

Pornography content rated 18

Under the current law, this should only be sold on DVDs on the premises of licenced sex shops to persons over the age of 18.

How will age verification work under law?

Who will enforce the law on commercial pornography websites? 

The Office of Communications (Ofcom) which already regulates the TV, radio and video on demand will also be the regulator of the new online safety regime created by the Online Safety Bill.

Online pornography sites that do not comply with the law by not having age verification or showing extreme pornography may be blocked by Internet Service Providers and mobile network providers.

They may also be removed from search engines, payment-services and social media sites to stop access to their sites.

How will sites with pornographic content verify users’ ages?

There are no plans for the government to state specifically what sites will need to do to prevent underage access. It may be that sites require users to register their credit card, or users might need to use a third-party service to prove their age.

What does this mean for data protection?

Regulated services will be expected to meet the UK’s data protection standards enforced by the Information Commissioner’s Office.

When will age verification requirements come into force?

It is expected that DCMS will introduce the Bill into Parliament around Spring 2022, but it will likely be many months or years before pornography providers will be required to introduce age verification.

What does age verification mean for your child?

The same way that protections are in place to restrict children from entering sex shops on the high street, this will create a safety net for children’s protection online. Although age verification will not be a silver bullet, these measures should mean that younger children will be less likely to stumble across or access pornographic content online.

Resource document

See our Inappropriate Content advice hub to learn more about the issue and find practical ways to protect your child.

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Use our parental controls guides to set controls on children’s devices

What do people think about age verification in law?

Parents’ views on age verification

From our report, We Need to Talk About Pornography, parents shared their reactions to age verification requirements on commercial pornographic websites as well as their concerns and experiences of their children seeing online pornography.

  • More than 8 out of 10 parents (83%) felt that commercial porn sites should demand users verify their age before they’re able to access content.
  • 76% of UK parents felt there should be greater restrictions online to stop kids seeing adult content.
  • However, almost a fifth of parents were against age verification tools due to concerns around security issues or fraud connected to sharing personal data.

Young peoples’ views on age verification

Our Demystifying teens’ online interactions research, published in October 2021, was produced through a partnership between Internet Matters and Roblox. It revealed that teens would like to see improved identity verification online to help them feel more comfortable building online relationships. It also showed that privacy is important to young people and that they like to feel in control of their personal information.

An expert’s view on age verification

Our ambassador Dr Linda Papadopoulos said:

“[Age verification measures in law] is a great step. . . . However, as with all tools, there’s still a chance adult content will slip through the net. It’s really important parents have conversations with their child about pornography – however awkward they anticipate them to be.

“It’s essential parents help their kids learn about the difference between normal sexual behaviour and pornography so they don’t get a warped view. Having open conversations, and talking to your child regularly about their digital world, will allow them to feel like they can come to you if they see adult content that has made them feel confused or upset and allow you to address it together.”

Resource

See tips from parents on how to help children recover when things go wrong online.

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Other steps you can take to protect your child from online pornography

Although age verification should help prevent children from seeing adult content, it’s important to combine this with other measures to keep children safe online.

There is no substitute for being engaged in your child’s digital world. Have regular, honest and open conversations with children about what they’re doing online.

Equip them with the knowledge of what to do if they do see something that upsets them too. This can help them recover better from exposure and encourage them to make smarter and safer choices online.

If your child accidentally comes across pornography or actively seeks it out, they are likely to have questions about what they have seen. Visit our Online Pornography advice hub for practical tips, including age-specific conversation starters.