The UK government is delaying plans to introduce compulsory age checks for people accessing porn online. The policy was scheduled to go into action this April, but the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) now says age checks will only be enforceable by the end of the year. Sites that do not introduce age checks will be blocked by ISPs and face fines of up to £250,000 ($350,000). The policy has been controversial since its unveiling in July 2017. Privacy advocates warn that the law essentially creates a database of the UKs porn habits controlled by the industry. (If it gets hacked, can British citizens ever trust the government again with their data? one lawyer told BBC News.) The companies that will have to implement the checks say there are no clear guidelines on how the system must work. The government has said it will leave it up to the industry to create the age check software, but the only solution made public so far is from porn titan MindGeek, which owns a number of popular sites including Pornhub, Youporn, and RedTube. Rivals will have to pay to use MindGeeks system, AgeID, but the company has not said how much it will charge others. This has worried independent porn makers, who fear that MindGeek will use its age verification platform to squeeze the competition. The government says the newly announced delay will give the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), the agency responsible for ensuring sites introduce the checks, more time to draft guidelines. So far, the BBFC has published no information on the subject at all. A spokesperson for DCMS said: We are making age verification compulsory for commercial porn sites, as part of our work to make the internet a safer place for children. But we need to take the time to make sure we get it right if its going to work, and it will come into effect later this year. The BBFC is expected to announce guidelines in the coming weeks, which must then be approved by parliament. After this happens, there will be a period of up to three months when sites can implement their solutions, which will be enforceable by the end of the year.
It's now expected adult sites won't have to put up age gates until the end of the year. Ever since the Digital Economy Act became UK law this time last year, we've known there would come a time when porn sites would be compelled to verify the age of British visitors to ensure they're only letting adults in. Not long after, the UK's digital minister set a deadline of April 2018, at which point porn sites would have to comply or face the consequences. We had assumed everything was on track, but the UK government has admitted we're nowhere near ready to police porn sites, and now it expects age verification won't be enforceable until the end of the year. The UK's Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport announced over the weekend the recipients of a £25 million ($35ish million) pot earmarked for 5G projects. The fund will support trials of 5G-equipped drones geared for "smart farming," internet of things things in healthcare applications and autonomous vehicle tech, among other research. Curiously, the government slipped into this release an admission that we don't yet have clear guidelines drawn up for porn sites to follow, and so mandatory age verification will be delayed until these sites know what's expected of them. The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), which decides the age ratings for movies, games and music videos, recently took on the additional role of porn regulator. The BBFC will be able to fine sites that don't introduce age checks up to £250,000 (around $346,000) or up to 5 percent of their turnover. Additionally, it can order ISPs to block sites and even tell service providers, such as those that process payments or manage on-site advertising, to stop working with sites not adhering to the rules. Social networks will also have a responsibility to mute the voices of non-compliant peddlers. We knew the BBFC was likely to take on this extra job as far back as 2016, but it was only officially appointed in the new regulatory role last month. That's the main reason for the delay: The BBFC is just now writing the guidelines porn sites and their service providers will have to follow. These will be published towards the end of this month in draft form, so the industry and anyone else with an opinion can comment on them. When it seems like a best-fit solution has been reached, the government then has to voice its approval before giving porn sites three months to get ready to implement age verification tools. This is all expected to come to a conclusion before the end of the year, but as with all things government, the process could very well drag on for longer. A big part of what the BBFC has to figure out is what forms of age verification will be appropriate. "We expect to see a number of solutions offered by providers to give people different ways to verify their age," an FAQ on the BBFC website states. The owner of Pornhub and many other adult sites, Mindgeek, recently detailed the system it intends to use. AgeID is an encrypted login that can work across any site, meaning someone only has to verify their age once to get into any site that uses the same tool. Apparently it doesn't store any personal information, just the data it needs to tell a site: Yes, this visitor is over 18. Mindgeek isn't just planning to use AgeID across its own brands. It intends to license the tool out to other sites and let smaller, independent providers use it for free. There is the question of whether one huge porn distributor should dictate how every UK-facing site checks age, but that's exactly the kind of thing the BBFC should be looking at. As you can imagine, a lot of people aren't happy about mandatory age verification in general. The worry is that any mechanism will leave a digital trail, meaning your personal porn habits are cataloged... somewhere -- one of the benefits of Mindgeek's AgeID tool is that it follows you around so you don't have to log in to every individual site. And if a record exists, how can we be sure this remains private and secure? In that sense, the BBFC is likely glad to have more time to get its ducks in a row and the industry in agreement. Between now and whenever age verification eventually becomes mandatory, perhaps it will allay the public's fears by being transparent about how exactly age checking systems are going to work in practice.