Age estimation tech could be used to prevent children accessing pornographic sites, new Ofcom guidance says

5 December 2023, 00:16 | Updated: 5 December 2023, 07:56

The guidance has recommended a number of methods to ensure children cannot access the adult sites.
The guidance has recommended a number of methods to ensure children cannot access the adult sites. Picture: Alamy

By Jenny Medlicott

Ofcom has laid out new guidance to prevent children from accessing pornographic content under new online safety laws.

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Under new draft guidance issued by online safety regulator Ofcom, platforms must use methods that are technically accurate, robust, reliable and fair to carry out age checks online.

The Online Safety Act states that pornography sites must have ‘highly effective age assurance’ on their platforms to ensure that children are not able to access its content.

Regulator Ofcom has recommended facial recognition technology to assess a person’s age and ID checks among other methods to ensure underaged individuals do not access the content.

Speaking to LBC's Nick Ferrari at Breakfast, Ofcom chief executive Dame Melanie Dawes said: "We know that pornography is just too readily available for children online, and actually, the average age at which kids first see it is about 13 years old.

"We do need to do something, [and the] government has introduced new laws here, they took effect a few weeks ago and what we’re doing today as Ofcom is saying how companies need to implement that.

"They need highly effective age checks and while they’re at it they do need to preserve privacy too."

She went on to say: "At the moment, a lot of the time, all that’s in place is something that says 'how old are you?' a lot of children are there with an adult age when they’re not actually over 18.

"And we don’t think that is an adequate form of verification instead we’re requiring things like a digital wallet which stores your information and a porn site can just hook into that and confirm yes or no is this person over 18?"

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Ofcom has set out six recommendations for achieving age assurance, which include but are not limited to:

ID checks: Users can upload a form of photo ID, such as a driving license or passport, which is cross-checked against an image of the user to verify they are the same person and of age.

Facial age estimation: Facial recognition technology could be used to analyse the features of a user’s face to estimate their age.

Credit card checks: As credit card users must be over 18, a user can provide their credit card details to a site, at which point a payment processer will send a request to check the card is valid to the issuing bank. Approval will signal the user is over 18.

Open banking: A user can confirm for their bank to share information with the site to confirm they are over 18 - without sharing the user’s full date of birth.

Digital identity wallets: With either the methods mentioned above or by other means, a user can store their age in a digital format, which can then be shared with the site to confirm they meet the required age.

The regulator also warned that methods, such as users self-declaring age, using payment methods that don’t require a user to be 18, or adding general disclaimers and warnings, would not suffice.

Any pornographic content must also not be visible to users before or during the age verification process, it added.

Those who do not comply with the new laws will face enforcement action, including potential fines.

“Pornography is too readily accessible to children online, and the new online safety laws are clear that must change,” Dame Melanie Dawes, Ofcom’s Chief Executive, said.

“Our practical guidance sets out a range of methods for highly effective age checks. We’re clear that weaker methods – such as allowing users to self-declare their age – won’t meet this standard.

“Regardless of their approach, we expect all services to offer robust protection to children from stumbling across pornography, and also to take care that privacy rights and freedoms for adults to access legal content are safeguarded.”

The regulator's final guidance will be published in in early 2025.