Online Advertising Team,

DCMS

100 Parliament Street,

Westminster,

London

SW1A 2BQ

By email: onlineadvertising.responses@culture.gov.uk  

24th April 2020

Dear colleagues,

Online advertising – Call for Evidence

I am writing on behalf of the Age Verification Providers Association which represents all the main technology suppliers who have invested in the development of age verification solutions to support the implementation of age restrictions online.

Our current membership includes AgeChecked, GBG, Pay360, Verime, W2 and Yoti.

As an association, we work to:

  • Inform and educate the public, industry, and media, on age verification solutions and technology.
  • Promote a positive image of effective age verification and the age verification industry.
  • Represent the industry to regulators and law makers for the advancement of best practice, socially-responsible age verification policy.

The AVPA was formed in 2018 from organisations involved in the UK’s Digital Policy Alliance age verification working group, and created and in response to a need for a uniform voice for of the industry.

The AVPA is governed by a representative Board drawn from its member organisations.

Benefits and challenges of online advertising

1. Is there any evidence that you would like to provide on the overall benefits, and/or challenges, associated with online advertising to individuals, businesses and/or society, which you believe is not being considered as part of the CMA Market Study into Online Advertising and Digital Platforms, the CDEI reviews into online targeting and bias in algorithmic decision-making, or any other recent reviews that are relevant?

We wish to draw to your attention the opportunities and threats arising from the application of age assurance online, and specifically in relation to advertising. These also offer better accountability and transparency for consumers in receipt of online advertising.

As government and its regulators increasingly seek to apply the principle that what is illegal offline should also be illegal online, implementing age restrictions online will be a core regulatory requirements for many goods, services and content.

At present, Advertising Standards Authority regulations prevent many products from being advertised to audiences which include children as a significant minority.  As a result, some platforms have to impose blanket bans on advertising of some products to avoid falling foul of these regulations.

So one major benefit of online advertising is that it is technically possible to discriminate between adults and children, and reduce the risk of minors seeing adverts intended only for adults.

This would potentially open up advertising channels currently unavailable to age-restricted ads.

It is becoming increasingly possible to do this with a high degree of confidence that a user is an adult because of the ever-growing number of online users who have undertaken independent, standards-based age verification when they are making purchases of age-restricted goods.  Online advertising platforms can check for an existing age verification before allowing age-restricted ads to be served to a user.

Regulators such as the Gambling Commission already impose age restrictions for online gambling operators, and others such as the Information Commissioner’s Office with their recent publication of the Age Appropriate Design Code of Practice, will also require appropriate levels of age assurance for sites accessed by children.

The existing system of oversight and regulation

2. To what extent are consumers exposed to harm by the content and placement of online advertising?

At present, there is no comprehensive, effective and independent mechanism for platforms, and in turn advertisers, to know the age of those who see their ads.  A broad brush approach is taken, assessing the likelihood that more than set proportion of the audience e.g. 25% is under 18.  This allows for hundreds of thousands of children to be exposed to ads intended only for adults while not breaching the relevant regulations.  It is a very imperfect system, and need not be as age verification for online users becomes an increasingly standard process as they access a wide range of age restricted goods, services and content.

Platforms can easily work with an AV provider to validate the age of users, and increasingly, this process will be interoperable between AV providers so there is mutual recognition of age checks whichever provider has issued them.

3. How effective are the current governance and regulatory system for online advertising in the UK, including:

a. the self-regulatory system governing content and placement standards, which operates through the provision of a complaints system and technology-assisted monitoring and enforcement interventions;

The system cannot be effective without knowing age with a sufficient level of assurance that the recorded age or age-group is accurate.  Many children sign up to social media before they are 13, which will often mean those platforms record their ages as 2 or 3 years older than is the case; giving 15 or 16 year olds access to 18+ advertising.

Rudimentary age assurance techniques do not provide the level of assurance required for much adult content and products, and cannot operate at the margins of the 18th birthday with any level of accuracy.

Given the strong vested interested in building an adult audience, platforms should be required to use independent sources of age verification, and these checks should be standards-based, using for example, the BSI’s PAS 1296 code of practice for age verification as a benchmark.  This is already recommended by the Home Office for online alcohol sales.

b. industry-led voluntary initiatives set up to guide or regulate good practice, including, but not limited to, the Internet Advertising Bureau’s Gold Standard or Better Ad Standards; and

The risk we wish to highlight is that existing, dominant online platforms could step in to offer a form of age assurance, drawing on the data they hold about their users, setting a de facto standard for age checking and extending their market power by becoming a single source of age-verified consumers able to access age-restricted goods, services and content.

We would like you to consider the importance of independence for the provision of age verification provision.  The arguments for this are simple:

  • The standards for age verification should be set by regulators, not by existing online platforms which have a strong commercial interest in assuming as many customers as possible are old enough to access an age-restricted good, service or content, as it is volumes which drive income.
  • Age verification standards should be set independently, based on international standards such as PAS1296, developed by the BSI and being upgraded to a standard against which providers can be audited and certified.
  • Such standards allow for proportionate application of age assurance, using a range of methodologies that give the necessary level of assurance for each particular use-case, as determined by a regulator, not those selling or marketing the goods or services.
  • Access to an adult audience, assured as such to a sufficient standard for the applicable use-case, should be available on an open, competitive basis, not restricted to those willing to reach their customers through major online platforms which might otherwise control the route to age-verified customers.
  • In summary, age assurance offers an opportunity to existing dominant online platforms to further entrench and extend their market position which should be something regulators are cautious of facilitating.  Instead, an independent, open and competitive market in standards-based age verification should be encouraged through regulation.

c. platforms’ terms of service and advertising policies.

It is insufficient for platforms to manage age verification through terms of service or policies.  They cannot effectively protect children from exposure to age-restricted ads merely by stating in their terms that children are either not permitted to use the service, or must declare their age truthfully to do so.  There is no shortage of evidence of children ignoring or circumventing such approaches, and little evidence of platforms detecting and addressing such breaches.

4. How would you assess levels of compliance with the current regulatory system as you have outlined above?

Social media platforms rely on the most limited form of age assurance – self-declaration – when new users open accounts.  There is considerable evidence that this is ineffective.

“About 600,000 children less than 12 years old log on to Facebook at least once a month, according to a report from the research company eMarketer.

The researchers found that Snapchat and Instagram both have 300,000 monthly users under 12, with a further 200,000 on Twitter.”

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/2018/08/28/half-million-british-children-12-use-facebook-despite-underage/

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse Internet Investigation report also shows this and recommended stringent age verification techniques.

27.1 Ms de Bailliencourt (Facebook ) said that, in her view, there was “no easy solution to implement age verification.334 For example, she said, a requirement to present government ID cards or credit cards could exclude those who did not have them and would involve the processing of a substantial amount of information. She explained that Facebook’s reporting tool includes the ability to report a possible underage user but said that Facebook did not keep data on the number of underage reports made in respect of the UK had “started to look into” artificial intelligence to help detect underage users.

27.2 When asked whether Facebook was able to assure the public that children would not be able to open accounts if they were underage, Ms de Bailliencourt said “this is something that we all need to work on together”.

27.3 In relation to YouTube, Ms Canegallo said that if there are reasons to suspect a user is under 13 years old, for example where the user reveals their age,340 YouTube requires the user to submit additional verification or it will terminate the account. YouTube “terminate thousands of accounts on a weekly basis for not passing that age verification process”.341 When asked whether this signified that the process was inadequate in the first place, Ms Canegallo said that YouTube was “constantly looking to improve” its age verification process while “looking to ensure that we are weighing those considerations of safety on the platform as well as privacy and data minimisation appropriately”

Recommendation 3: Age verification

The government should introduce legislation requiring providers of online services and social media platforms to implement more stringent age verification techniques on all relevant devices.

https://www.iicsa.org.uk/document/internet-investigation-report-march-2020

5. What, if any, gaps do you consider there to be?

6. To what extent do you consider issues relating to harm to advertisers – including brand safety, ad fraud and reliable indicators of viewability – are effectively dealt with, and what further role, if any, do you consider that government could play?

Many advertisers are currently paying to advertise to adult audiences, when a significant proportion of those who see their ads will be underage.  Where this is for age-restricted goods and services, there is no immediate prospect of sales.   Platforms have a strong disincentive to address this given their revenue models are often based on the number of impressions or clicks, not always contingent on sales.

Government can require platforms to substantiate their claims about the age of a target audience based on rigorous standards (e.g. BSI PAS 1296) and independent age verification.

7. Is there any further evidence that you would like to provide on how effective the current regulatory system is at preventing instances of the exploitation of vulnerabilities / vulnerable people, manipulation, or discrimination through the use of targeting (whether direct or indirect), which you think is not being considered by existing reviews?

Children are considered generally vulnerable to a wide range of potentially harms goods, services and products which we legally restrict to adults. A truly effective general approach to protecting children, particularly where data on their online behaviour is used to target advertising, has not been addressed in existing reviews, and this is a golden opportunity to do so.

8. There are some differences in the way that broadcast and non-broadcast advertising, including online advertising, is regulated. What effect do you consider any regulatory disparities have on individuals, businesses and/or society?

One obvious difference between broadcast and non-broadcast is the application of the 9pm watershed.  This was clearly created because of the impossibility of discriminating between viewers based on their age.

While imperfect, given the extent of time-shifted viewing, and that many children stay up later than 9pm, the watershed does provide a degree of insulation for younger children from adult TV content and advertising.

There is no technical reason not to extend the watershed to online advertising, except where the platform and advertisers can demonstrate they are only reach independently verified adult audiences.

This would encourage the adoption of age verification, by allowing platforms to then sell advertising restricted to adult audiences around-the-clock.

Further action

9. Considering the benefits and challenges you have identified above, what additional actions / measures / initiatives could be proposed that would help ensure that the online advertising sector can continue to innovate and grow?

The Age Verification Providers Association is working with its members to develop an open, competitive market in age checks.  It is driving the establishment of international standards in AV, building on PAS1296.  It is agreeing technical protocols to facilitate interoperability between AV providers so consumers need not prove their age to multiple AV providers, while the clients of those AV services still have a choice of suppliers, enabling competition based on price and quality.

It is particularly important to note that, unlike identity verification, age verification can be conducted on an anonymous basis.  Once an individual has provided the evidence required to prove their age to the level of proof required for any particular purpose, their personal information need not be retained by the AV provider.  Instead the customer is given a token including an age attributed e.g. “Is over 18? Yes or No”.  Thus advertising markets can operate for age restricted goods, services and content without the necessity of knowing the identity of consumers, and therefore without holding the personal information and associated data which has given leading online platforms their dominant market position.  Independent AV is therefore a simple, readily available mechanism for opening up these advertising markets, and counters an argument the platforms may make that only they can protect minors from unsuitable content through their accumulated personal data.

10. What further role, if any, should government play?

Age assurance is a fundamental building block for online regulation globally.  The UK is leading the world in this field, and will continue to do so if the supply of this service remains independent of those who benefit from access to customers who are of sufficient age.

A requirement for independent, certified age verification would be an important addition to the regulatory environment for advertising, and a powerful mechanism for introducing competition in the digital advertising market.

Yours sincerely,

Iain Corby

Executive Director

Age Verification Providers Association