New age assurance guidelines for user-to-user and search platforms

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Latest News,Legislation,Technology

Philip Young — May 29, 2024

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Ofcom’s second consultation offers early insight into new rules

New guidelines protecting children from harmful content bring search engines and user-to-user platforms a step closer to mandatory age assurance. The draft regulations from Ofcom, the UK’s online safety regulator, are open to consultation. But they provide an early glance at the tough new rules that will restrict access to content from 2025.

The proposed guidelines are Ofcom’s latest response to the Online Safety Act. Passed last year, the Act will give Britain one of the toughest online regulatory systems in the world. Social media apps, search engines and other online services will need to adopt robust age checks and stop their algorithms recommending harmful content to children.

What is harmful content?

This is the second of Ofcom’s four consultation exercises on finalising the regulations that will flesh out the Act’s skeleton framework. The first, which closed in February, focused on protecting people from illegal content. The current discussions will lead to new rules designed to stop children accessing harmful content. The Act divides harmful content into three broad categories:

Primary priority content (PPC) that is harmful to children:

Pornographic content, and content which encourages, promotes, or provides instructions for suicide, self-harm, and eating disorders.

Priority content (PC) that is harmful to children:

Content which is abusive or incites hatred, bullying content, and content which encourages, promotes, or provides instructions for violence, dangerous stunts and challenges, and self-administering harmful substances.

Non-designated content that presents a material risk of harm to children:

Any types of content that do not fall within the above two categories which presents “a material risk of significant harm to an appreciable number of UK children.”
Based on these definitions, Ofcom has published draft Children’s Safety Codes which aim to ensure that:

  1. Children will not normally be able to access pornography.
  2. Children will be protected from seeing, and being recommended, potentially harmful content.
  3. Children will not be added to group chats without their consent.
  4. It will be easier for children to complain when they see harmful content, and they can be more confident that their complaints will be acted on.


Creating a safer online environment

In a four-week period (June-July 2023), Ofcom found that 62% of children aged 13-17 encountered PPC/PC online. Research also found that children consider violent content ‘unavoidable’ online, and that nearly two-thirds of children and young adults (13-19) have seen pornographic content. The number of girls aged 13-21 who have been subject to abusive or hateful comments online has almost tripled in 10 years from 20% in 2013 to 57% in 2023.

To create a safer online environment for children, Ofcom has outlined a series of steps that search services and user-to-user platforms will be expected to take.

Online services must determine whether or not they are likely to be accessed by children. To help in this, Ofcom has posted an online tool, here. Platforms that are likely to be accessed by children must:

  1. Complete a risk assessment to identify risks posed to children, drawing on Ofcom’s ‘children’s risk profiles’.
  2. Prevent children from encountering primary priority content relating to suicide, self-harm, eating disorders, and pornography. Services must also minimise children’s exposure to other serious harms defined as ‘priority content’, including violent, hateful or abusive material, bullying content, and content promoting dangerous challenges.
  3. Implement and review safety measures to mitigate the risks to children. Ofcom’s Safety Codes include more than 40 measures such as robust age checks, safer algorithms, effective moderation, strong governance and accountability, and more information and support for children including easy-to-use reporting and complaints processes.


Highly effective age assurance

There is no single fix-all measure that services can take to protect children online. But the package of measures recommended by Ofcom prominently relies on age assurance. Ofcom anticipates that most digital services not using age assurance are likely to be accessed by children. Once the final draft of the new rules comes into force, age assurance will be mandatory.
In practice, this will mean that all services will have to ban harmful content or introduce what Ofcom describes as “highly effective age-checks” restricting access to either the whole platform or parts of it that offer adults-only content. Ofcom defines “highly effective” as age assurance capable of technical accuracy, robustness, reliability, and fairness, with further details here.
Regulated services will no longer be able to get away with an ineffective ‘I am 18’ button. They will need to commit to age assurance technology to ensure their services are safer by design.
The quickest way of doing this is to adopt a proven digital ID product, like Luciditi. Ian Moody, Luciditi co-founder and CEO, says, “Easier and more cost-effective than starting from scratch, Luciditi can be easily embedded in web sites or apps, either by using a pre-built plugin or by using our Software Development Kit.”
Ofcom have specifically said their measures will apply to all sites that fall within the scope of the Act, irrespective of the size of the business. ‘We’re too small to be relevant’, won’t wash as an excuse.
Services cannot refuse to take steps to protect children simply because the work is too expensive or inconvenient. Ofcom says, “protecting children is a priority and all services, even the smallest, will have to take action as a result of our proposals.”

“Don’t wait for enforcement and hefty fines” – Tech Sec

According to Ofcom, children who have encountered harmful content experience feelings of anxiety, shame or guilt, sometimes leading to a wide-ranging and severe impact on their physical and mental wellbeing.
The lawlessness exploited by some of the world’s leading social media platforms has contributed to the deaths of children like 14-year-old Molly Russell. The coroner’s report concluded that watching content promoting suicide and self-harm had contributed to Molly’s death by suicide.
“We want children to enjoy life online”, said Dame Melanie Dawes, Ofcom Chief Executive, “but for too long, their experiences have been blighted by seriously harmful content which they can’t avoid or control. Many parents share feelings of frustration and worry about how to keep their children safe. That must change.”
The consultation exercise closes on July 17, 2024. Ofcom says, “We will take all feedback into account, as well as engaging with children to hear what they think of our plans. We expect to finalise our proposals and publish our final statement and documents in spring 2025.”
Welcoming Ofcom’s proposals, Technology Secretary Michelle Donelan said, “To platforms, my message is engage with us and prepare. Do not wait for enforcement and hefty fines – step up to meet your responsibilities and act now.”
The Online Safety Act doesn’t pull its punches. Repeat offenders will potentially be fined up to £18 million or 10% of global revenue, whichever is greater, and company managers risk going to jail for up to two years. In the coming months, platforms will need to be proactive in committing to the age assurance products that will help them stay on the right side of the law.
In Britain at least, the carefree distribution of harmful content is about to change. Ofcom’s proposals go much further than current industry practice and demand a step-change from tech firms in how UK children are protected online.

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Luciditi’s Age Assurance technology can help companies meet these strict new guidelines.  If you would like to know more, Contact us for a chat today.

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