Can age verification help protect our kids from online pornography?

AUSTRALIAN parents are worried about their kids encountering pornography online, and with good reason.

For young children, pornography that they may encounter by accident can be distressing and even harmful. For older kids and teens who may stumble upon or seek out this material, the risk is that it will give them unrealistic and potentially damaging ideas about what intimate relationships should look like.

eSafety is the only dedicated online safety regulator in the world. We engaged with parents and conducted extensive research regarding their concerns about the internet in 2018. Not surprisingly, a third of them were concerned about their children accessing or being exposed to pornography.

Pornography has been around for centuries, but digital technology has unleashed a tsunami of hard core porn, much of it at the fingertips of any child with an internet-connected device. Our children are viewing graphic, sometimes extreme sexual material on their smartphones that would never be approved to be shown on television, and that they would never be permitted to watch in a cinema.

Our kids deserve to be protected against such material.

Recently, “age verification” for pornography sites has emerged as a promising barrier between children and porn. The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs is currently inquiring into age verification for online pornography, as well as for online wagering.

Age verification has promise . . . and problems

In our submission to the inquiry, which is available on its website, eSafety has supported the implementation of age verification technology, as well as the legislative framework that would support it — subject to further research and review. The fact the UK government last month pressed “pause” on introducing age verification for online pornography illustrates just how complicated it is to get this right.

Technically, age verification has shown promising advancements.

The technologies currently being investigated include: third-party services, where an external provider verifies a user’s age; biometric verification, in which a user’s biological characteristics may be used to estimate age; or artificial intelligence, which can be employed to establish if a user is a child or an adult, based on behavioural signals. All of these technologies, and others, remain to be fully tested to determine if they are effective.

But such technology, supported by rigorous technical standards, is just part of the equation. Age verification relies on a broader digital ecosystem to support it. Such a system would include: an implementation framework; processes to oversee, test and monitor age verification; harmonisation across the states; a process for appeals and complaints; and a legislative structure that strikes a balance between rights such as privacy, safety and security.

We are ready to assist in the development of age verification and the structures needed to underpin it. But let’s be clear: age verification will never be the sole or even the principal firewall between pornography and our kids.

You are the best firewall

The first, and most important, firewall is we — their parents, carers and teachers. No technology absolves us of the responsibility to be involved in our children’s online experiences and to help them navigate the digital world in a positive way. While this may sound daunting — because no parent or carer looks forward to discussing a subject such as pornography with school-age children — there is a wealth of tips and resources here to help you start this important conversation.

Second, we need to ensure the education system properly prepares children for the challenges of the online world, including their potential exposure to harmful content. We believe online safety education should be more deeply embedded in the national school curriculum.

And finally, we should not allow a technology such as age verification to let internet service providers off the hook for supporting the safety of their users, especially children. What we call "Safety by Design" — the embedding of user safety protections, and the anticipation of potential harms, as an inherent primary feature of all apps and internet services — is a far more effective vehicle for protecting children than features bolted on later, such as age verification.

So let’s by all means progress age verification as one tool in a suite of measures that help protect children from online pornography. But let’s also not pretend it is a silver bullet — because where the internet is concerned, there is no such thing.

This is the text of an article that appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on 2 December 2019.