UK Government proposals aimed at protecting children online could backfire by driving activity to countries less likely to cooperate, according to the Law Society of Scotland.
The warning comes in the Society's response to a consultation on the introduction of age verification for accessing pornographic websites. Ministers are attempting to tackle the large number of young people across the UK being able to access adult websites on their computers – up to 20% of those under 18 and 13% of those aged six to 14, it is said – and the damaging effects this can have.
Stuart Munro, a member of the Society's Technology Law & Practice Committee, said the commitee understood why the Government wanted to examine additional protections to those which already exist, such as parental control filtering software, but did not believe that a "tick box" means of verifying a viewer’s age was sufficiently robust, and it could bring unintended consequences.
“We fear that the consultation proposals for age verification could be counterproductive and potentially drive those producing online pornographic content further afield to websites hosted in countries that would not cooperate and result in even less protection for our children”, he commented.
The plans also raised concerns about privacy. “The Government has said it doesn’t want to censure individuals who would be legally entitled to access pornography", Mr Munro added. "However we have concerns about the risks of retaining such data, particularly in the wake of a number of recent, high profile data breaches, and if the information would ultimately be available to the authorities. There would have to be measures in place to ensure that there would be no contravention of the Data Protection Act.”
Nor would a new criminal law regime necessarily be more effective in protecting the public: any prosecution would presumably be against internet service provider companies, with penalties such as fines or licence suspensions, but those penalties were already available under civil law proceedings and the civil regime imposed more stringent duties on the companies.
"We therefore believe that enforcement should continue to be matters for the civil courts”, Mr Munro concluded.