UK Porn Block: Second coming on the cards as Age Verification firms take gov to court

Four companies tasked with developing age verification solutions have launched legal action, which may overturn the Culture Secretary’s decision to shelve the so-called ‘porn block’.

AgeChecked Ltd, VeriMe, AVYourself, and AVSecure are understood to be seeking damages, £3 million, as well as a reversal of the decision which, according to an unnamed source, amounts to an “abuse of power”.

The age verification plans were included as part of the Digital Economy Act, which was passed in December 2018. These included requiring all sites hosting adult video content to check that all users were aged 18 or above on sign up.

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Despite tech firms being assured that they would be able to launch their age verification tools in 2019, technical and bureaucratic issues saw the launch date repeatedly kicked down the road. In October last year, Culture Secretary Baroness Nicky Morgan announced that the rollout was to be halted for the foreseeable future.

The CEO of AVSecure, Stuart Lawley, told the Telegraph that he was expecting 10 million people to be using his service from launch, and as a result of the lack of expected revenue, has had to sack colleagues.

“We would sooner they issue a new start date and I would drop my claims and get on with it,” Mr. Lawley said.

“We are millions of pounds out of pocket, me personally millions, we have people who don’t have jobs anymore as a result of this.”

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Part of the reason the plans were paused was appointment of the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) as a regulator for the age verification industry – the government had failed to notify the European Commission of this, as is currently required, therefore undermining the legal basis of the regulation.

At the time, privacy campaigners and digital rights lobbyists the Open Rights Group criticised the BBFC’s ability to properly regulate, as the code of conduct for age verification it drew up was voluntary.

“The fact that the scheme is voluntary leaves the BBFC powerless to fine or otherwise discipline providers that fail to protect people’s data, and makes it tricky for consumers to distinguish between trustworthy and untrustworthy providers,” the group said in a statement.

“In our view, the government must legislate without delay to place a statutory requirement on the BBFC to implement a mandatory certification scheme and to grant the BBFC powers to require reports and penalise non-compliant providers.”

Reacting to the judicial review launched by AgeChecked Ltd, VeriMe, AVYourself and AVSecure, Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group said: “These companies are asking us to trust them with records of millions of people’s sexual preferences, with huge commercial reasons to use that data for profiling and advertising.

“The adult industry has a terrible record on data security. We’re being asked to hope they don’t repeat the many, many times they have lost personal data, with the result that blackmail scams and worse proliferates.

“The government did the responsible thing when it admitted its plans were not ready to proceed. Age Verification must not be pushed forward until there is compulsory privacy regulation put in place.”

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