Written by Rachel O’Connell.

Recently, I wrote a briefing paper entitled Age Verification: New Possibilities. The focus was on recent technical, legal and policy developments that are changing the narratives about online identity and age verification, in particular for young people aged below 17 years of age.

The purpose of the paper was to serve as an introduction to these issues for people who are not familiar with identity ecosystems but are concerned with the issues that age verification may help to address. Now why is this a topic that should be addressed? It’s important because a range of business sectors in a number of countries around the world are actively engaged in the process of defining the technical, legal and policy standards that will underpin new methods to verify identity and age online.

Age verification falls under UKCCIS authority

The briefing paper was written at the request of the executive board of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS). If you’re not already familiar with UKCCIS, it is an extensive forum comprised of representatives from government, industry, law enforcement agencies, teachers unions and children’s charities. And although age verification falls within the remit of UKCCIS as one of the longest standing online child safety issues, most UKCCIS representatives are not at all familiar with the technical, legal and policy specificities associated with electronic identity ecosystems, trust frameworks, attribute quality assurance or indeed pseudo-anonymous age verification.

UKCCIS can and do influence policy-making

This can in part be explained by the fact that, for now at least, e-ID does not fall within the roles or remit of the majority of UKCCIS members. Combine this with an emerging UK e-ID ecosystem that’s still in relatively nascent stages of development and you can understand why most representatives aren’t savvy to the specifics. However, collectively UKCCIS members have a great deal of expertise on a range of child protection issues and UKCCIS can and does influence and shape policy making, especially within an EU context.

One recognised standard

Proposed EU legislation will mean that European countries will mutually recognise each other’s citizens’ electronic identities. These developments address one of the major concerns that online businesses have had in the past in respect to age verification. Previously, there were a plethora of challenges when dealing with a multiplicity of solutions in different countries around the world that did not operate to an agreed set of technical, legal or policy standards.

Moreover, the technical standards that underpin the different configurations of electronic identity ecosystems operating in a number of countries around the world have and are being developed so that they can and will seamlessly inter-operate.

Banks and mobile operators as id providers

Age is just one attribute of an individual’s identity that can be vouched for by identity providers both in scenarios where robust identity and age verification are required (online banking for example) and others where pseudo-anonymous age verification will suffice (e.g. the use of adult content sites).

Currently, in a number of European countries, both banks and mobile operators act as identity providers for their customers. How does it work? In effect, a bank enables a bank account holder to benefit from the fact that their identity has previously been verified by the bank. Account holders who sign up for an e-ID allows the bank to vouch for his/her electronic identity in any number of online scenarios where an internet user needs to go through an identity verification process. These online scenarios include online banking and accessing public

Providing e-IDs for social networks

There have been some other developments whereby e-IDs have been implemented for other personal transactions. A recent example comes from Finland, where e-IDs are being used on social networks and gambling sites to verify both the identity and age of an internet user.

Everyone will reap the benefits

The benefits to both governments and the commercial sector of electronic identity ecosystems are numerous. With e-ID there is a reduction in the costs of delivering public services and of doing business online, improved customer experience, enhanced security of customer transactions, reduction in the incidence of fraud, supporting the growth of the digital economy, and the personal information economy as well as the Internet of Things, and better enabling companies to engage in good business practices both online and offline.

The benefits to individual internet users (generally over the age of 18) include enhanced security with respect to their personal data, reduction in the risk of both fraud and identity theft and an increase in convenience because e-IDs significantly reduce the number of online forms an individual needs to complete.

Those under 18 are not to be left out of the dialogue as they too can benefit from the implementation of e-IDs. As more young people rely on online and mobile payment methods, it is increasingly important that their eligibility for age-related discounts such as student fares on public transport, clothing, utilities and entertainment can easily and seamlessly be factored into financial transactions. Effective online age verification would also ease parental concerns about their children’s online financial activity and provide educational opportunities to improve young people’s financial literacy.

Streamlining online identity and age verification processes would also enable more young below age 18 years of age who do not have a credit file to prove their eligibility for funding for further education and/or to start a new company. In effect, online identity and age verification would be enablers that equip young people with the means to become active participants in and beneficiaries of the digital economy by fostering both higher levels of engagement with further education opportunities and entrepreneurship amongst the young demographic.

Understand and be prepared for new possibilities

An understanding of and a preparedness for the possibilities associated with young people utilising identity providers operating within an identity eco-system are prerequisites for internet policy makers, businesses, educational institutions, all government departments, and those responsible for children and young peoples’ wellbeing. With these two qualities, everyone can enjoy the benefits.