Age verification, legislation, and the money-making opportunity

Background: the UK is apparently going to try to introduce the failed Part 3 Digital Economy Act 2017 again, but this time cramming it into the already-overstuffed new "law of everything to do with the Internet", the Online Safety Bill.

There's plenty to be written about the proposal, and I will (attempt to) hold off until we have the actual detail.

I mean, it's possible that the government has plans to address the numerous pitfalls and problems.

So this is just about one aspect: the commercial imperative of litigation, and the "safety tech" sector.

Age verification and money big enough to litigate over

The money to be made from "safety tech"

A UK government report - produced to "assess the capability and potential of the UK online safety sector" - demonstrates just lucrative safety tech (of which age verification is a part) is predicted to be:

Some of the most established companies (those earning in excess of £5 million) have grown at rates of up to 90 per cent a year

and

the report estimates that safety tech revenues could exceed £1 billion by 2025

and

The report anticipates the UK is likely to see its first safety tech unicorn (a company worth over $1 billion) emerge in the coming years, with three other companies also demonstrating the potential to hit unicorn status in the early 2020s.

The government has said that there is:

"clearly enormous potential across the Safety Tech sector ... to foster the development of sustainable, high-tech companies across the country"

And, with legislation, comes even greater profitability?

But, without legislation forcing organisations to buy services from age verification vendors, the market for those vendors is much smaller.

Indeed, in 2020, some UK age verification vendors launched an attempt to sue the government for damages they allege they have suffered as a result of the government's decision to delay the introduction of the problematic Part 3 Digital Economy Act 2017.

According to the BBC, these companies have asked the government to give them over £3 million of the taxpayers' money.

The Guardian reports that:

Past industry estimates put the likely number of British online porn users at 20-25 million – around a third of the UK population.

and

The cost of age verification is about 15-20p a person for websites.

The Guardian does not specify whether this is per verification attempt, or a once-off fee of £0.20 per person, but my guess - happy to correct this if there's a good citation showing otherwise - is that this is per verification attempt.

25 million viewers * £0.20/viewer = £5,000,000.

Multiplied by the number of verification attempts each person needs to undergo.

That's not a revenue stream to be sniffed at.

And it's a hefty chunk of cash per person, for anything but the largest, most well funded, of sites.

£5 for a porn licence, ma'am? Two for £9?

And what if you don't fancy handing over your personal data, or - and, frankly, I can't imagine who decided that this was a good idea - turning on your camera, before you access a porn site, to show your face (no chance of this being abused. No, sir. Definitely not.)?

Reporting on the previous attempt to do this in the UK, Wired said that:

There is also the option to buy a voucher, known as a PortesCard, developed by OCL, from a local shop. The cards cost £4.99 for use on one device and £8.99 for multiple devices.

and

there will be Age Verification cards or Paysafe cards [for AgePass] available in shops around the UK and a card will cost £10.

Age verification as value for "UK PLC"

Age verification, and other forms of safety tech, could be a valuable export for "UK PLC".

According to the UK government:

the UK is at the forefront of cutting edge Safety Tech and is developing leading safety products that are already being used worldwide

Bolstering this, the UK government has:

The financial impact on smaller sites, and the knock-on effects

It will be interesting to see the government's impact assessment for this new proposal, in due course.

The impact assessment for the original proposal said:

Estimates of costs to UK commercial porn providers in revenue loss, compliance costs and fines are not known at present

Oh well. A trifling detail.

Perhaps, four-ish years on, someone will have done some analysis here.

Personal blogs

Even without a government impact assessment, my feeling is that, if you're running your own blog, tweeting the occasional photo of yourself (perhaps the kind of thing one used to find published daily(?) on page 3 of the Sun newspaper) and writing some erotica, £0.20 per viewer, on top of the costs of integrating with one or more age verification systems, is likely to be an unbearable burden.

Ad revenue will not cover that.

Realistically, can you charge your readers? Probably not? (And doing so brings added complexity, in terms of integration with payment providers, and the willingness of payment providers to pull the rug from under the feet of sex workers.)

Hope for some more Patreon supports? Perhaps. But, especially at lower levels of support, an additional £0.20 per person (per verification?) is unlikely to be welcome.

Smaller subscription sites

If you are smaller subscription-based site, then you are already charging, so there is already at least a reasonably effective barrier to underage access, and so a lesser justification for additional measures.

If only the big players can afford to comply...

The impact of smaller sites shutting shop, and what that leaves behind, is one for another day.

But I think it's a very much undesirable outcome, personally, in terms of the impact on diverse, ethical porn, and content which is not focussed on the male gaze, optimised for clicks and ad revenue.


Author: neil

I'm Neil. By day, I run a law firm, decoded.legal, giving advice on Internet, telecoms, and tech law. This is my personal blog, so will be mostly about tech stuff, cycling, and other hobbies.

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