Technology

'Porn block' companies seek £3m in damages

A man browsing a website Image copyright AFP

Four companies that were developing age verification schemes for pornography websites are seeking damages after the government scrapped the idea.

The plans would have forced adult websites to verify users' ages or face being blocked in the UK.

Culture Secretary Baroness Morgan scrapped the scheme in October 2019 amid a wave of privacy concerns.

AgeChecked, VeriMe, AVYourself and AVSecure are seeking over £3m in damages from the government.

They have lodged a judicial review with the High Court to review the lawfulness of the decision to axe the scheme.

'Safety'

The so-called "porn block" had been pitched as a way to stop children "stumbling across" pornography on the internet.

Websites would be required to age-verify visitors. However, how they would do this was not explicitly explained in the proposal.

At the time, children's charity the NSPCC welcomed the proposal. It said: "Exposure to pornography can be damaging to young people's views about sex, body image and healthy relationships."

However, critics warned that many under-18s would have found it relatively easy to bypass the restrictions or seek out porn on platforms not covered by the plan, such as Reddit or Twitter.

There were also privacy concerns, amid suggestions that websites might ask users to provide ID such as passports or driving licences, which could be exposed in a data breach.

Chief executive and founder of AgeChecked, Alastair Graham, claimed those concerns were unfounded.

"The age verification sector developed technology to guarantee privacy and data security for consumers, abiding by a new standard created by the British Standards Institution," he told the BBC.

"AgeChecked provides anonymous age verification, and it does not retain any personal data."

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Steve Winyard, chief marketing officer at AVSecure, claimed the government was concerned about negative media attention ahead of the general election in 2019.

"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to work out that [the porn plan] could have caused some consternation in the press."

Open Rights Group - a UK-based organisation that campaigns for digital rights - warned that a database of pornographic preferences would have put people's privacy at risk.

Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group said the government did the "responsible thing" by abandoning the plans.

"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 proliferate," he said.

"Age verification must not be pushed forward until there is compulsory privacy regulation put in place."

The companies developing the age-verification schemes were not subject to tight privacy regulations.

Instead, the government had asked them to make "voluntary" privacy commitments.

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