In the UK the Gambling Act, 2005, established a licensing regime for companies wanting to run gambling web sites. To obtain an online operator's licence, inter alia, companies had to show they had a robust method for verifying that all their customers are aged 18 or above.
At one level this should never have been necessary. The legal position was always perfectly clear. Nobody should have set up in the gambling business, online or off, if they didn't have the means to determine that their customers met the law's unambiguous minimum legal age requirements.
However, the penalties for breach were tiny and enforcement relied principally on vastly overworked, under-resourced local government officials who were, in any event, uncertain about the jurisdictional issues which the internet was throwing up. It was only when the Gambling Act came into force that things changed.
Whilst this may be a disappointing commentary on business ethics, it is perhaps also only realistic. I guess many companies worried that if they were the first to introduce significant "obstacles" to the sign in process they might lose customers to their less fastidious rivals.
The law works!
Since the licensing law came into effect I have not heard of a single case where a child has beaten the system by doing what they used to do before when all that was required was a tick in a box. This is what converted me to the cause of online age verification. It won't solve all the ills of the internet, but it definitely solves some.
Having dealt with gambling, people's attention then turned to the online sale of alcohol. Again, in my view there was no doubt about what the law required.
No one is compelled to sell or provide anything online, but if they choose to do so they ought to be able to do it in a way which will satisfy themselves and others that they are not regularly breaking the law and potentially harming children. Yet every time anyone looked at the online sale of alcohol vendors were found wanting.
In May, 2009, Greenwich Council did test purchases online with Marks & Spencer, Oddbins, Laithwaites and Drinksdirect. They all delivered booze straight to the door of a 16 year old.
Yet the law could not have been clearer. Anyone selling alcohol has to verify that the person they are selling it to is over 18 and they must do this at the point of sale. The question of "serving" or delivering alcohol raises separate issues but the point of sale is fundamental.
That is not how several very famous retailers or their trade bodies saw it. I can think of one in particular who not only flatly denied that the law required them to check at the point of purchase, they also told me that their local Trading Standards Officers - the local government officials with the principal responsibility for enforcement - agreed with them! If you are a major employer in a given area it is amazing how accommodating some local authorities can be.
Check on delivery? No.
In this particular case the company concerned told us they always age verified the sale of alcohol at the point of delivery and this got them off the age verification hook.
Picture the scene. You're a truck driver. You do deliveries for this well known company. Your bonus depends on how quickly you can offload your cargo and get back to base for another consignment. You get extra payments every time you come back with zero returns. Today you are delivering to the 15th floor of a high rise. Your vehicle is illegally parked so you can get close to the building to save time, or it is legally parked but liable to obstruct traffic. You knock on the door then ask the person who answers it to go and get their passport, or their driving licence or birth certificate before you hand over the box.
I don't think so. Saying "We check at the point of delivery" in this case was code for "we don't do it at all". The drivers in this case were directly employed by the company. They drove vans and wore clothes sporting the corporate livery. I spoke to the trade union that organized the drivers and they confirmed that what the company had told me, and here I use a technical term, was just a lie.
I then spoke to several well known delivery firms. They all pretty much said the same thing: if they accept an item for delivery typically they just hand it over to whoever answers the door at the given address. Sometimes a signature will be required sometimes it won't, or there may be specific instructions about leaving the box with a neighbour or beside the garden shed. And that's it. No identity check or age verification.
Anyway, long story short, the new government picked up on some work which the last one had started. They conducted a review and published the results in April of this year. Parts of it finally came into effect last week. Guess what? They endorsed our view.
Click here to see the entire document, but below is the relevant extract, taken from para 10.67 on page 87:
Licence holders should consider carefully what steps they are required to take to comply with the age verification requirements under the 2003 Act in relation to sales of alcohol made remotely. These include sales made online, by telephone and mail order sales, and alcohol delivery services. Each of these sales must comply with the requirements of the 2003 Act. The mandatory condition requires that age verification takes place before a person is served alcohol. Where alcohol is sold remotely (for example, online) or through a telephone transaction, the sale is made at this point.....Age verification measures (for example, online age verification) should be used to ensure that alcohol is not sold to any person under the age of 18. However, licence holders should also consider carefully what steps are appropriate to ensure that age verification takes place before the alcohol is served (i.e. physically delivered) to the customer.....
So what are we to make of companies which still do not deploy age verification when they sell alcohol online? Asking for payment via a credit card emphatically does not meet the point: Mastercards and Visa cards, plus others, are lawfully available to persons of all ages.
And neither is it sufficient to do what the gambling companies used to do i.e. ask the would-be purchaser to tick a box to confirm they are 18 or above. Equally a company cannot simply announce that "By confirming this order you are also confirming that you are aged 18 or more."
Unless and until companies can do it right they should not do it at all.