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Australia Shies Away From Age Verification

by | Sat, Sep 9 2023

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The federal government has opted not to force adult websites to bring in age verification following concerns about privacy and the lack of maturity of the technology. It has also backed away from a trial for at least what’s likely to be several years, preferring to let the industry police itself.

It will task the eSafety commissioner, Julie Inman Grant, to work with the industry to develop a new code to educate parents on how to access filtering software and limit children’s access to such material or sites that are not appropriate.

The eSafety Commission was asked to develop an Age Verification Roadmap by the previous government. Over two years, it consulted everyone from the adult industry to educators, examined the privacy issue and looked at potential technological fixes. It found that a third of 16 to 18-year-olds had been able to access an adult site before they turned 13 and that more than three quarters of Australians supported age assurance technology such as digital IDs, voice scans and facial recognition software.

But the Albanese government wasn’t convinced of the need to act, saying: “It is clear from the Roadmap at present, each type of age verification or age assurance technology comes with its own privacy, security, effectiveness or implementation issues. A decision to mandate age assurance is not yet ready to be taken.”

Children’s advocates were disappointed a trial would be years away. “In view of the risks to the most vulnerable children in this country,  I would have liked like to see a greater sense of urgency for reform,” said Children’s Commissioner Anne Hollonds, adding: “I was disappointed that the eSafety commissioner’s recommendation for a pilot has not been accepted.”

Collective Shout, an organisation focused on challenging the objectification of women and sexualisation of children, accused the government of prioritising the profits of the adult industry over the safety of children, reported

Director Melinda Tankard Reist said: “It’s time to stop calling this process a Roadmap. There is no Roadmap. There are only delays and obstacles to doing anything that would bring this predatory industry into line. The government has caved in to the vested interests of that industry. If France, Germany, the UK, Louisiana and Utah can roll out age verification systems, why can’t we? Vested interests should not be put before the well-being of children.”

Michael Salter, an associate professor in criminology at the University of NSW, told the Sydney Morning Herald the codes were not enough, and the pilot should be conducted at the same time. “It’s concerning to see real action kicked down the road for many years away. How many children need to be harmed through this exposure until the government takes effective action?” he queried.

Britain recently tightened protections in its Online Safety Bill by setting higher standards for age verification tools used by services that publish or allow adult material on their platforms, to ensure they are effective in establishing whether a user is a child. The new measures will seek to hold top executives personally responsible for keeping children safe on their platforms with the prospect of jail time for tech bosses.

European countries like the UK, France, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands and Ireland have been grappling over how to protect social media users, and in particular children, from harmful content without damaging free speech. Many have either passed or proposed new laws, or have undertaken trials.

In the United States the Baptist Press reports age verification laws written to protect minors from adult content have driven some adult sites out of service in at least four states. “Rather than comply with laws that carry penalties for violators, they have reportedly discontinued service in Arkansas, Mississippi, Utah and Virginia,” it writes. Other states have either enacted or prepared similar legislation. All have had unanimous or strongly bipartisan support.

However, some state laws are now being struck down on the grounds that they violate the free speech rights of the adult industry and are “overbroad” and “vague.” One judge wrote; “Age-gating social media platforms for adults and minors does not appear to be an effective approach when, in reality, it is the content on particular platforms that is driving the state’s true concerns.”

Christian ethicist Jason Thacker said the legal challenges are evidence that the operators are not concerned with the welfare of minors.

Forbes business magazine writes that: “Even if a reliable, secure age-verification system is found, there will be many ways in which both adults and children will still be able to access explicit sites without having to show ID. The biggest and best known operators may comply with individual state or national laws to avoid prosecution, but many others won’t because they’re based in countries well beyond the reach of US and other international legislators.”