Information watchdog refuses to rule out age gates for ALL websites

Britain’s information watchdog refuses to rule out age gates for ALL websites under tough new code

  • Information Commissioner’s Office has drawn up plans for website age checks
  • But it is unclear which websites will be affected and how rules will be enforced
  • Web giants will have to confirm they know the age of users who create accounts 
  • If they do not they will face fines, which in Facebook’s case could be £1.67billion
  • New code is backed by data protection law and could come into force this year   

The UK’s Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham

Britain’s information watchdog has drawn up plans to introduce strict age checks on websites – but has not said how it will enforce them or which firms will be affected.

The Information Commissioner’s Office is set to unveil a tough new code of conduct to force companies to guarantee they know the age of their users.

It is not known whether websites will have to monitor the age of users themselves, or if the public will be responsible for reporting breaches.

And the proposals don’t indicate exactly how the new rules will be policed or which websites will be affected.

The new code will likely come under the remit of the Data Protection Act 2018, which was completed in December last year. It will give the ICO the power to issue huge fines to firms who do not adhere to the new rules. 

But the move, likely to come into force by the end of the year, is likely to trigger a backlash from privacy and free speech campaigners.

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The ICO said in a statement: ‘The code won’t have a lot of prescriptive detail about how sites age verify because all of the sites are going to be different.

‘So we are going to say there has to be appropriate age verification on the site.

‘We will then use our powers to ensure that such verification is effective and in place.’

The proposals suggest web firms that hoover up people’s personal information will have to guarantee they know the age of their users before allowing them to set up an account.

What is the ICO and what are its powers? 

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) upholds information rights in the public interest, promoting openness by public bodies and data privacy for individuals.

It is a non-departmental public body which reports directly to Parliament and is paid for by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

The office investigates issues including spam emails, data consent to companies, political campaign practices and individuals’ rights to information.

They also advise companies on data protection issues and investigate firms not thought to be complying.

The ICO has the power to hand out huge fines, of up to four per cent of companies’ global turnover.

Age checks are expected to be on a sliding scale depending on the webpages or websites a child wants to enter – from a tick-box system to an electronic passport type system where the person must use ID to prove their age.

But the specifics on exactly how that will work have not been made clear.

Companies that don’t, face fines of up to four per cent of their global turnover – £1.67 billion in the case of Facebook.

The code also aims to stop web firms bombarding children with harmful material, a problem highlighted by the case of Molly Russell, 14, who killed herself after Instagram allowed her to see self-harm images.

Experts claim it will have a ‘transformative’ effect on social media sites, which have been accused of exposing young people to dangerous material, bullying and predators. It includes rules to help protect children from paedophiles online.

Facebook will be forced to ensure its pages and settings are child-appropriate but in Google’s case it is not clear if the age checks will relate to all websites found via the search engine or only ones people have to subscribe to. 

Under the new code:

Once the new rules are implemented, children could be asked to prove their age by uploading their passport or birth certificate to an independent verification firm.

  • Tech firms will be banned from building up a ‘profile’ of children based on their search history, and then using it to send them suggestions for material such as pornography, hate speech and self-harm;
  • Children’s privacy settings must automatically be set to the highest level;
  • Geolocation services must be switched off by default, making it harder for paedophiles to target children based on their whereabouts;
  • Tech firms will not be allowed to include features on children’s accounts designed to fuel addictive behaviour, including online videos that automatically start one after the other, notifications that arrive through the night, and prompts nudging children to lower their privacy settings.

This would then give them a digital ‘fingerprint’ which they could use to demonstrate their age on other websites.

Alternatively, the tech firms could ask children to get their parents’ consent, and have the parents prove their identity with a credit card.

If the web giants cannot guarantee the age of their users, they will have to assume they are all children – and dramatically limit the amount of information they collect on them, as set out in the code.

At present, a third of British children aged 11 and nearly half of those aged 12 have an account on Facebook, Twitter or another social network, Ofcom figures show.

Many youngsters are exposed to material or conversations they are too young to cope with as a result.

Websites will be forced to introduce strict age checks on their websites or assume all their users are children under plans being unveiled by the Information Commissioner’s Office

ICO deputy commissioner Steve Wood said: ‘We are going to be making it quite clear that there is a reasonable expectation that companies stick to their own published terms and policies, including what they say about age restrictions.’

Baroness Beeban Kidron, who tabled a House of Lords amendment which ensured the new code was drawn up and put into law, added: ‘I expect the code to say: ‘You may not, as a company, help children find things that are detrimental to their health and well-being’. That is transformative. This is so radical because it goes into the engine room, into the mechanics of how businesses work and says you cannot exploit children.’

The rules will come into force by the end of the year, and will be policed by the ICO, which has the power to hand out huge fines.

It will also use its powers to crack down on any web firm that does not have controls in place to enforce its own terms and conditions.

Companies that say they ban pornography and hate speech online will have to show the watchdog they have reporting mechanisms in place, and that they quickly remove problem material.

Companies that don’t guarantee they know the age of their users face fines of up to 4 per cent of their global turnover – £1.67 billion in the case of Facebook (file photo) 

Firms that demand children are aged 13 or above – as most web giants do – will also have to demonstrate that they strictly enforce this policy.

At the moment, web giants such as Facebook simply ask children to confirm their age by entering their date of birth without demanding proof.

A spokesman for the ICO, which is headed up by Elizabeth Denham, said: ‘We can confirm that websites seeking consent for sign up to online services aimed at children must seek parental consent if the child is under 13.

‘We’ll also be clear in the code that organisations must be held to account for the age limit policies policies on their sites and how they implement them, when it is connected to collection and use of personal data.

‘The code will also set out the importance of implementing the design standards for all users it they cannot verify the ages of children likely to use their service.

‘These are new steps forward and we will consult on how they will work in practice. It’s important to stress the consultation.

Trusted and (at some point in the future, certified) third parties can also provide age verification services to allow people to prove their age and identity without providing information directly to the service.

‘One such example of the concept is the Governmnent’s Verify service.’

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Chemical weapons watchdog says chlorine was used in Douma, Syria

The Hague: The global chemical weapons watchdog says it found "reasonable grounds" that chlorine was used as a weapon in a deadly attack on the Syrian town of Douma last year.

The determination was contained in a detailed report by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons' fact finding mission that investigated the April 7, 2018 attack. Medical workers said at the time that the attack killed more than 40 people.

Medical workers treat toddlers following the gas attack in the opposition-held town of Douma, in eastern Ghouta, near Damascus,on April 8 last year.Credit:White Helmets/AP

The mission's mandate does not include laying blame.

In a statement, the OPCW said the mission visited Douma, analysed samples taken from the scene and from people affected, interviewed witnesses and studied toxicological and ballistics analyses.

The investigators were delayed by several days from reaching the scene by security concerns, leading to fears that evidence could degrade or be cleaned up.

However, the data they eventually amassed and studied provided "reasonable grounds that the use of a toxic chemical as a weapon" took place, the OPCW said.

People stand in front of damaged buildings, in the town of Douma, a week after the April 2018 attack.Credit:AP

"This toxic chemical contained reactive chlorine. The toxic chemical was likely molecular chlorine."

Survivors reached in the aftermath of the attack said they were overwhelmed by the smell of chlorine on the night. Activists said many of the dead were found with foam around their mouths, an indicator for suffocation. Medical workers said they treated symptoms including difficulty breathing and fainting.

The United States, Britain and France blamed Syrian government forces and launched punitive airstrikes. Syria denied responsibility.

Douma was the final target of the government's sweeping campaign to seize back control of the eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus from rebels after seven years of revolt. Militants gave up the town days after the alleged attack.

The OPCW said the report has been sent to the United Nations Security Council.

Russia, a staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, rejected claims that Syria was responsible for the attack and even brought what it called witnesses to The Hague to describe their experiences.

In a tweet on Friday, the Russian embassy in The Hague said the OPCW reached its finding, "in spite of all the evidence presented by Russia, Syria, and even British journalists that the Douma incident is no more than 'White helmets' staged provocation." The White Helmets are a volunteer civil defence organisation.

A joint investigative mechanism between the United Nations and OPCW, set up in 2015, was responsible for apportioning blame, but it was disbanded after Russia vetoed an extension of its mandate at the UN Security Council. Moscow claimed the team was not professional or objective in its investigations.

The team accused Syria of using chlorine gas in at least two attacks in 2014 and 2015 and the nerve agent sarin in an aerial attack on Khan Sheikhoun in April 2017 that killed about 100 people and affected about 200 others. The latter attack led to a US airstrike on a Syrian airfield.

The team also accused the Islamic State extremist group of using mustard gas twice in 2015 and 2016.


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Russian media watchdog says BBC spreads ‘terrorist ideologies’

Russia’s media watchdog accuses BBC of spreading ‘terrorist ideologies’ in latest in a tit-for-tat row over impartiality

  • Roskomnadzor, the state media watchdog, said it would investigate the BBC 
  • Last month Britain’s monitor Ofcom said RT could face sanctions for impartiality
  • It led to a tit-for-tat exchange in which the names of BBC journalists were leaked

Russia’s media watchdog accused the BBC Thursday of spreading the ideologies of ‘terrorist groups’ via online publications of its Russian service, the latest in a tit-for-tat row over media impartiality.

Roskomnadzor, the state communications and media watchdog, said it would investigate whether the BBC was breaking the law.

This was the latest volley in a wave of rhetoric against the BBC, after Britain’s broadcasting regulator Ofcom last year said the Moscow-funded RT channel had broken broadcasting standards.

The names of 44 BBC journalists working in Russia were leaked on a Russian social media site this week

‘Currently we have discovered materials which transmit the ideologies of international terrorist groups (quotes of terrorist al-Baghdadi)’ on the BBC’s Russian language website, Roskomnadzor said in a statement.

Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi is the leader of the Islamic state jihadist group, also known as ISIS.

Russian law does not forbid quoting individuals considered ‘terrorists’, however any mention of such outlawed groups has to come with the disclaimer that the group is banned in Russia.

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The watchdog said it would probe whether material broadcast by the BBC ‘corresponds with Russian anti-extremism legislation’.

The BBC said in a statement sent to AFP that it ‘fully complies with the legislation and regulations of every country’ in which it operates.

The Russian statement did not cite any specific articles or dates.

Roskomnadzor also said it had requested documents from the BBC’s Russian services to investigate whether it was breaking a new law limiting foreign ownership of Russian media.

It comes a month after UK broadcasting watchdog Ofcom announced Russia’s state-run network RT could face sanctions over its reporting of the Salisbury spy attack

BBC’s Russian service is limited to the internet, but it has expanded in recent years and has many top reporters on the team dealing with often sensitive political subjects.

Britain’s Ofcom said in December it had found violations of impartiality rules in seven of RT’s shows broadcast after the Salisbury nerve agent attack on former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.

The ruling led Russia to announce it would launch an investigation into the BBC for breaching fairness standards under Russian media law for its reporting of the same incident. 

In an intensification of the feud, the Sunday Times published a list of names and photographs of eight reporters working for the Moscow-backed Sputnik’s UK bureau in Edinburgh. 

After the Sunday Times leak last month, a list of 44 BBC reporters working in Russia was then published online anyonymously. 

Moscow said at the time that any proceedings against the BBC were a ‘mirror measure’ for Britain’s ‘constant propaganda against RT’, a state-owned channel.

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Campaigners demand petrol watchdog stop ‘opportunistic profiteering’

Fuel price campaigners demand new petrol watchdog to stop ‘chronic opportunistic profiteering’ by retailers

  • Analysis suggests pump prices for petrol have been 4-5p higher than necessary
  • Wholesale price of diesel fell by 13 per cent between October and December 
  • But this has not been passed on to drivers, with prices falling by just 3 per cent

A petrol watchdog should be set up to stop ‘chronic opportunistic profiteering’, campaigners and MPs say today.

Analysis suggests pump prices for petrol have been 4-5p higher than necessary since October, netting £600million of extra profit for the fuel industry.

Research by motoring campaign group FairFuelUK found the wholesale price of diesel tumbled by 13 per cent (16.5p) between October 3 and December 21. 

A petrol watchdog should be set up to stop ‘chronic opportunistic profiteering’, campaigners and MPs say today. Stock pic

However, this has not been passed on to drivers, with pump prices falling by just 3 per cent.

The group, backed by MPs, is calling for a new quango – PumpWatch – to keep drivers informed about wholesale oil prices and forecourt savings that should be due to them when prices tumble.

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Describing its efforts as a ‘shot across the bows’ of the industry, FairFuelUK said the watchdog would put pressure on retailers to pass on savings.

Robert Halfon MP, vice-chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Fair Fuel for Motorists and Hauliers, said: ‘PumpWatch is the only way to ensure motorists are not taken for a ride by greedy oil companies. It will bring the rocketing fuel prices back to earth.’

Describing its efforts as a ‘shot across the bows’ of the industry, FairFuelUK said the watchdog would put pressure on retailers to pass on savings. Stock pic

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