Number crunching knife crime and online ID verification

Legislating in a data-light zone


Separate figures for knife crime have not been maintained historically. Homicides where knives are involved are recorded under a single category ("sharp instruments") that also includes bottles. Total homicides in this category have been falling over the last few years. The CCJS report delivered a scathing verdict on government policy on knife crime. Enforcement and punitive action that fails to take account of the underlying reasons why knives are carried is doomed to failure. The policy itself was dismissed as incoherent.

This view appears to have escaped the attention of Ms Moran. Citing the infamous Byron Review, she claims that her Bill "reflects the findings" of this report.

That is a slight stretch. The Byron Review was more concerned with the issue of age verification generally than the problem of online sales.

But there is still a common thread running through Ms Moran’s Bill and the Byron Review.

According to Ms Moran, "The online world cannot be cowboy city, and what applies offline must apply online. We must not frighten people off technology, which has huge potential for good in so many ways, but we must help people to guide young users, and prevent abusers from taking advantage of the openness and freedom of the internet".

That is an interesting aspiration: to find a way to prevent abusers taking advantage of the openness and freedom of the net, without seriously impairing those qualities for everyone else.

Since it is nigh on impossible to validate a child’s age without a universal system of age validation in place, this is very close to a demand for compulsory online ID. And if there should be no distinction between online and offline rules, then compulsory offline ID (aka the national ID card) would go a long way to closing what, in government-speak, might be considered another 'loophole'.

Parental locks and cookies

Of course, there are alternatives. The Byron Review proposes a solution to the problem of young people providing false age data. Parental control software should be loaded as standard on all new PCs. Set-up of this software should be simple and idiot-proof.

In a couple of instances, the report draws back from the most draconian conclusions. It argues against setting the default on parental control software to 'on' (s4.68).

It is also not especially taken with approaches that encourage sites to monitor computer usage for phrases most usually associated with young people (s4.85) – and then block users whose language was not grown-up enough.

However, this does not seem to reflect a belated conversion to the cause of individual liberty, so much as a fear that these measures don’t yet work. Parents would be lulled into a false sense of security – and phrase recognition doesn’t yet work well enough.

Much more interesting to the Review Group is the suggestion that if you visit sites more usually visited by young people, then it could be determined that you are under age (4.86).

The result of such visits would be the placing of a cookie on your PC, to prevent you re-registering elsewhere with 'false' details.

There is a very good chance that Ms Moran’s Bill will hit the dirt today. As a Ten Minute Bill, its chances were always slim.

But what is far more important is the degree to which it is in tune with official thinking. While the government does not control Private Bills it is often very interested in the progress they make and the reception they get. It is a way to fly kites without being seen to hold the string. For better, for worse, Ms Moran is a portent of legislation yet to come. ®


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