OPINION: Govt Internet token plan to protect children is focused in the wrong places

Dan Barrett
Dan Barrett
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As the Albanese Govt gets all Helen Lovejoy and screams “Why won’t someone think of the children,” it is difficult not to look at the efforts to introduce a crackdown on youth access to adult websites and services as an ineffective waste of money.

On the table is a $6.5 million pilot program that will force Australian Internet users to prove their age using digital tokens. These tokens would then be used to access websites offering alcohol retail, gambling sites, pornography, and other adult fare.

But it will never work.

The plan

The Government has announcement an age assurance trial. The restriction of access to adult material, inclusive of porn and alcohol sales, were discussed at a national cabinet meeting, with age assurance technologies used as a solution.

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These technologies provide adults with a digital token that gives them access to adult-orientated material, conceptually keeping children protected from encountering pornography and “other high-impact online content”.

In addition to the planned token proposal, the eSafety Commissioner has also unveiled a new phase of industry codes and practices. In a statement, the office of the eSafety Commissioner said: “Noting that a broad range of technology providers already have many automated measures in place to deal with high-impact nudity, violence, and other themes, we expect each industry sector – whether they be  social media sites, search engines, app stores, ISPs, device manufacturers,  gaming or dating sites – will do what they can to prevent harm to children associated with violent pornography and other harmful material accessed through their services.”

The argument against even trying

The spirit of intent is pretty sound. And it is unfair to compare the government to The Simpsons’ Mrs Lovejoy – she was an emotional reactionary governed only by her conservative moral code. There is a very real problem facing young people – behaviours and attitudes are being shaped by unfettered access to adult material online.

Communications Minister Michelle Rowland conceded that the task was “too overwhelming for governments”, but that it was important that political leaders do what they could.

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“The reality is that digital platforms are influencing our culture and our social lives. [The platforms] have a fundamental responsibility to step up and do more,” she said.

“The content that digital platforms serve, through algorithms and recommender systems, particularly to young Australians, has an impact in reinforcing harmful and outdated gender norms.”

While the argument that the government should have a role in the policing of gender norms isn’t especially strong, she is right in saying that these platforms are playing a role in shaping the minds of our youth. But is spending millions on blocking online access to porno and booze a good use of money?

In the US, we have seen several states legislate age-gating for adult websites. The result was that Pornhub (like it or not, it is one of the world’s biggest websites) blocked all IP addresses from residents in Texas and will likely do the same in Alabama as similar laws are introduced there. We all know it is pretty simple to skirt blocks like this. Pornhub know that Texans will continue to use its site, just using a VPN service to bypass their weak block.

Overseas content providers will just do similar. Instead of implementing costly age assurance technology, the companies will pay lip service to the idea that they don’t service Australian residents and then continue to serve the many Australians who regularly use VPNs. And real talk: how many adult porn site visitors are really going to be happy with a government-sanctioned token recording their access to every site they visit? Australians not using a VPN now surely will if this is introduced.

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Blocking alcohol online retailer access will be just as effective as bricks and mortar alcohol restrictions. It has never been difficult for teenagers to get their hands on booze. Either parents are buying it for them directly, or older friends/brothers/sisters are generally more than okay doing it.

Instead of wasting time, money, and other resources on blocks like this, surely the money is better spent on better education about online engagement. We are on the cusp of a deep fake avalanche of fake news and information. Are we doing enough to educate young people on how to engage with this media? Adult education spending in this space is also crucial.

We need better legislation supporting online safety for teens using social media sites – protections against revenge porn, support for better mental health, promotion of healthier body image, and so many other obvious areas for concern as our youngest community members engage online.

Something needs to be done to better protect kids, but a blockchain powered age verification system isn’t the answer.

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Dan Barrett is the Head of Content at EducationDaily's publisher. He is a Brisbane-based writer/producer/comms professional who has worked for organisations including SBS, Mediaweek, National Seniors Australia, iSentia, the NSW Dept of Customer Service, and Radio National. He is passionate about the Oxford comma and is one of Australia's earliest podcasters.