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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 25th year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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More internet restrictions

19 March 2019

It really does look as if the internet is dying -- from the perspective of being an open, free and somewhat anonymous method of accessing and disseminating information.

As if the moves by New Zealand ISPs to block access to sites either hosting or containing links to the "live shooter" video made by the Christchurch gunman weren't a strong enough indicator of this, it seems the UK is going a step further.

According to this report, the UK is planning on introducing a mandatory proof of age requirement for anyone accessing porn sites from that country.

Whilst this might sound like a good idea (protecting under-aged Net users from "objectionable material", the cure may be worse than the complaint -- especially from a privacy perspective.

As the Guardian report makes clear, the process of age-verification could create a potentially huge privacy issue -- in the event that the identities of people can be linked to this verification process.

Indeed, any online service or site that acted as a proof of age verification service would instantly become the target for hackers and blackmailers from all parts of the globe.

There would be very few people who used such a service that would be happy with the world knowing that they indulged in a bit of porn-browsing on the interwebs and in the case of the "rich and famous", anyone in possession of such information could easily use it to extract a payment or stipend from those not wishing to be embarrassed.

The operator of one service vying for space in the age-authentication market is quoted by the Guardian as saying that "at no point does AgeID have a database of email addresses. AgeID does not store any personal data input by users during the age verification process, such as name, address phone number, date of birth. As we do not collect such data it cannot be leaked, marketed to, or used in any way."

Some however, are not quite so sure.

There are also concerns that the data could leak indirectly, via the porn sites themselves.

Others have also suggested that even though age-verification sites might not keep personal details, those details will have to be entered as part of the process and thus, if the servers were compromised, that data could still be sent to some third party without anyone's knowledge.

Given the problems and potential risks associated with this situation, I wonder if it might not be more sensible for ISPs to offer the solution -- by way of login gateways to their services -- as follows:

Once your modem/router has established an IP connection with the ISPs servers, another login process requires a name and password to verify the actual user -- or at least the category of user (child, young adult, adult etc). The category of the login then effectively sets a cookie that allows the user's browser to identify the age of the account user to any site which requests it.

Under this system, a household internet account might have several different logins, each with a different "parental control" setting and if websites honoured those settings then determining which sites could and could not be accessed would be trivial -- without the need to actually know the unique identity of the person concerned.

Rather than trying to foist silly country-specific, independent, potentially vulnerable services on its citizens, why doesn't the UK lobby for a new W3C or similar standard so that this becomes internationally recognised?

I'm pretty sure most countries would be in favour of a strategy that provides age-related content-access control in what is effectively an anonymous fashion.

But then again, I think we all know that this is not how politicians think or work.

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