If you can’t prove how old you are, your days of shopping on the internet may be numbered. Fears that young people could be getting hold of knives, adult DVDs and alcohol are all fuelling a campaign by Margaret Moran, MP for Luton South, to make online age verification compulsory in the UK.
This Friday, she will introduce a second reading of a bill designed to impose hefty fines – or even a prison sentence – on online retailers who fail to implement procedures that will ensure their customers are of a legal age.
At the Bill’s first reading, in January, Ms Moran said: "My Bill aims to ensure online retailers take their responsibilities more seriously. Children can now get hold of some very disturbing items, things they would never be able to buy if they walked into a shop. It has to stop.
"It is clear that currently there are inadequate checks put in place by a large number of online retailers and if they are going to continue to drag their heels over this issue then it is up to Parliament to ensure our children are better protected."
Ms Moran cited a story from The People. According to this, a 14-year-old obtained a pre-paid card from a local store. It is not illegal to do so – though card retailers claim they do not sell these cards to anyone under the age of 18.
He then went on to obtain porn, knives and vodka – and to place a £10 bet with William Hill. Ms Moran claims this is just the tip of the iceberg, and that the number of such cases is increasing.
Recent surveys have found around one-third of teenage boys aged 13-17 have successfully purchased adult DVDs and violent games online. And 5 per cent of 14-year-olds have purchased alcohol in this way.
Meanwhile Conservative MP John Whittingdale was embarrassed to learn that his 12-year-old daughter’s membership of Bebo was in breach of that site’s "over 13s" rule.
This came to light when, as chairman of the Commons culture committee, Mr Whittingdale quizzed Bebo safety chief Rachel O'Connell on the minimum age appropriate for joining that site. To general laughter, the MP commented: "I shall plainly have to go and talk to her."
There are two points here. The first is that Ms Moran has latched on to an issue that worries the public. The number of stories about under-age purchasing (online) is increasing – alongside comments from concerned officials. Trading Standards bodies, for example, frequently grab headlines about this topic.
But it is very easy to stage a story of this kind, and in the case of The People's story one assumes that the child was actually assisted in his law-breaking by a number of reasonably clever adult journalists. But even if the law was broken in creating the story, it could be argued that the end justifies the means when it is children’s welfare that is alleged to be at stake.
Which leads on to the second point.
On the surface, this Bill is going nowhere. It is a Ten Minute Bill. These sometimes become law, but more often they are a platform for political hobby horses. The Bill is likely to be second in the debating queue – which is good, but probably not good enough to ensure it goes forward.
However, what happens behind the scenes is just as important. Ms Moran is also lobbying for the principles embodied in this Bill to be taken up by Government into other legislation. The response to this Bill, even if it fails, is therefore important, and the media hype – notably by the BBC last weekend - may well give it legs beyond Friday.
There is certainly a real problem beneath the surface of all this; if certain things are deemed wrong for young people to possess, then they ought not to be getting round the law just by using the internet.
The situation is exacerbated by the growing range of items that have been barred to young people by this government and by social paranoia. But the answer is not legislation that is over-broad and preventative. In order to identify young people on the internet, you need to identify older people as well. Does anyone feel yet another justification for compulsory ID coming on?
To control a minority group (as with immigrants) it becomes necessary to control everyone. Nothing to fear if you haven’t done anything. But is that really the point?
The other question begged by this proposal is just what the role of parents is meant to be in all this. If a teenager is ordering all manner of illicit items, then having delivered them to their home, there are several points in the supply chain where an involved parent is likely to notice and, presumably, intervene.
And vice-versa. If a child is so out of control that they are ordering drink and knives off the internet – are they likely to regard the drinks cabinet and the kitchen drawers as out of bounds?
This law is over-reaction to an unproven issue, and the fact that Ms Moran is proudly claiming that "this is the first time a politician in Europe has called for online age and identity verification to be put on the statute books" is the sign of a party that has entirely lost the plot as far as individual liberty goes.
It is to be hoped the Bill will be laid to rest on Friday. But sadly, its spirit seems likely to haunt legislation for years to come. ®
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