THE BLOG

An Open Letter to the Future Prime Minister

07/05/2015 11:20 BST | Updated 06/05/2016 10:59 BST

With NHS funding, immigration and the economy getting the major news column inches throughout this election, there has been very little coverage about online safety.

With the two main parties stating they will make age verification mandatory for porn sites only and quoting out dated and ineffective measures, it leaves us all a little concerned that we could be here in four years time wondering "what happened to that policy in the end?" And another four years' worth of news stories about children and negative exposure online.

As toddlers find their way happily around an iPad, it's not surprising that as future generations reach their teenage years, they are increasingly living their lives in online worlds. From social networks to shopping online, they find it easy to access all they need, and this increases the risk when there is little or no control.

I would like to call to the future Prime Minister to focus on the importance of this issue. In the next four years they could make a significant positive impact on the safety of our children, and enable industry to act responsibly but still thrive commercially.

So whose responsibility is it? The ISP's, the parents or the service provider?

There is a chain of responsibility, which needs to include education of children and their parents to fully understand the risks online. It also requires the ISP's to use blocking measures where possible, and it needs action from industry; those service providers who are offering age-restricted goods, services and content.

In order to make this happen, and to do it in a way that that these industries can survive commercially, we have the following recommendations for our future leader.

Firstly, develop a set of age verification standards. Industry has started some work in this area through the Digital Policy Alliance but this type of work needs independent funding from government to make it happen. A robust set of standards with an accreditation process needs to be developed without being prescriptive, thus leaving room for innovation in this area.

Secondly, technology and the ability to protect users' privacy has developed significantly in the last four years. I would ask you to consider established models, which demonstrate how identity and age can be verified without compromising user privacy, such as the Verify scheme.

These new models are capable of giving an online site the information it needs, i.e. the person is over or under 18 years, at the same time maintains the privacy of the individual, by using an anonymous trusted login but not actually sharing personal data such as the date of birth details. Also look to other industries and how they have implemented age verification controls, such as the gambling industry back in 2005, this has been in place for 10 years, what worked and what didn't? Take the learning from those who have already trodden this path, and work out areas for improvement.

Thirdly understand that solving this problem needs all stakeholders to work together, government and industry. Pushing age verification controls back onto the banking network through checks against credit cards won't work for a number of reasons. Credit cards are not an authoritative source for proving someone is over 18, nor does this issue deal with services which are made available who need to be 13+ or 16+ to access them, such as social media sites and video content. Government has data linked from historical education records and other sources, which contains dates of births of those under and over 18. Or we would look to new offline ways of verifying age, which could then be turned into an age verified credential. Using the latest technology around privacy these could be validated against in a way which doesn't compromise user or data privacy, making these sources available for verification to those accredited under the standards would significantly help move towards more robust age verification.

Fourthly, consider carefully the commercial impact of implementation for industries, particularly those competing with companies overseas, such as the pornographic industry, who would not be bound by the same set of standards. If the future Prime Minister wants to support UK based businesses it needs to consider how it will allow these businesses that comply with a standards based approach, to not be penalised commercially by businesses overseas that are none compliant. To make age verification ubiquitous it needs to be delivered in the long term, for those who have to buy the service, at a price point which is sustainable.

Lastly let's not be here in another four years wondering how we are going to keep our children safe and secure online. We have the technical innovation, data and know how.....let's do it today.