Can ‘age assurance’ technology effectively prevent children from accessing online pornography in Australia?

Can 'age assurance' technology effectively prevent children from accessing online pornography in Australia?

In response to a rise in gender-based violence and deaths in Australia, the National Cabinet has allocated nearly A$1 billion to various strategies. One of these strategies is addressing “online harms,” which includes implementing a pilot program to explore the use of age-checking technologies to restrict children’s access to inappropriate online content.

Exposure to adult material at a young age is believed to contribute to domestic violence by promoting harmful attitudes towards relationships. Controlling access to adult content aligns with the ongoing debate over age-related restrictions on social media platforms.

Although specific details are yet to be announced, the eSafety Commissioner proposed a roadmap for age verification over a year ago. Recent events have prompted action, but there are concerns about the effectiveness of age-checking tools.

The eSafety Commissioner published a comprehensive report in March 2023 titled “Roadmap for age verification,” which highlighted the risks of children accessing inappropriate content, particularly online pornography. The report revealed alarming statistics, such as 75% of children aged 16-18 having seen online pornography and one-third being exposed before the age of 13. The report made several recommendations, including conducting a pilot program before mandating age assurance technology.

It’s important to distinguish between age assurance and age verification. Age assurance typically involves individuals self-declaring their age or having a parent confirm their access to certain services. Age verification, on the other hand, requires providing and verifying some form of identity against a trusted source.

While checking a person’s age may seem like a straightforward solution, the reliability of available mechanisms is questionable. Asking for a user’s date of birth can be easily manipulated, and secondary approval from a parent would only work if the relationship could be confirmed. Biometric approaches raise privacy concerns, and identity verification relies on trust and secure access to identity records.

Implementing an effective system would likely involve content providers sending verification requests to an Australian-based service, confirming that a user has been verified as an adult. However, since much of the adult content is hosted overseas, a coordinated effort would be necessary to enforce age verification and ensure providers can connect to Australian systems.

No system is foolproof, and children can bypass age assurance by providing false information or using someone else’s details. Even biometrics can be circumvented with the help of older relatives, photo filters, or future AI applications. Age verification has potential, but it must not only confirm the age of the claimed identity but also authenticate the person attempting to verify their age.

While there may not be a simple solution, imposing constraints that limit underage access is still a worthwhile endeavor. Some children will always try to access illicit materials, just as some find ways to smoke and drink. However, doing nothing is not an option, and age verification measures may protect at least some vulnerable minds.