Wikipedia won’t be age-gating its services no matter what final form the UK’s Online Safety Bill takes, two senior folks from nonprofit steward the Wikimedia Foundation said this morning.
The bill, for those who need a reminder, styles itself as world-leading legislation which aims to make the UK “the safest place in the world to be online” and has come under fire not only for its calls for age verification but also for wording that implies breaking encryptiion, asking providers to make content available for perusal by law enforcement, either before encryption or somehow, magically, during.
The new legislation asks that platforms control risks for underage visitors, prompting the foundation to come out to say it won’t age-restrict its entries.
In a statement to national UK broadcaster the BBC this morning, Rebecca MacKinnon, vice president of Global Advocacy at Wikimedia, said that to perform such verification would “violate our commitment to collect minimal data about readers and contributors.”
Wikimedia UK chief Lucy Crompton-Reid told the Beeb it was “definitely possible that one of the most visited websites in the world – and a vital source of freely accessible knowledge and information for millions of people – won’t be accessible to UK readers (let alone UK-based contributors).”
The bill is currently in the committee stage at the House, where the peers are considering a “full package of amendments [that] defines and sets out the rules of the road for age assurance, including the timing of its introduction, and the definition of terms such as age verification and age assurance.”
Though one can’t predict how that will go, back in February, more than one of the Lords were disappointed that an earlier version of the Bill didn’t stop children from accessing pornography, explicitly calling for age verification to be written into the face of the Bill to prevent this.
The Earl of Erroll, who is the Parliamentary Chair of the Digital Safety Tech Group, spoke of the “the sadness of the constitutional impropriety when the Executive refused to implement the will of Parliament,” when UK ministers tried to push age verification in the Digital Economy Act 2017 – suggesting some factions are ready for round 2 of the DEA.
As Jo Joyce, senior counsel in Taylor Wessing’s commercial tech & data team, told us at the time, when the OSB returned to Parliament: “The protection of children and vulnerable people online is perceived as a vote winner for the government and dropping the Bill entirely was unlikely to be an option, despite the concerns of free speech advocates and pressure from tech businesses.”
Internet age verification in the DEA was killed off in 2019, with Reg readers, and security and privacy experts alike concerned about the collation of private data necessitated by making such checks. Among the proposals was signing up with one’s credit card – a deeply unpopular idea – and allowing certain firms to work as information collectors / age verification service providers, creating huge jackpot targets of citizen data. The Lords, however, said they felt that “anonymous age verification is possible.”
We asked the Wikimedia Foundation if it had been approached by the government about the so-called “Encyclopaedia exception,” which would allow certain platforms to escape the effect of the relevant clauses. We also asked about the geographic distribution of Wikipedia editors as it relates to the UK. The most recent statistic we could find was that 13 percent of Wikipedians are based in the UK, although that data was from 2013. Given its stance on user data collation, we doubt the org has these numbers.
Tech orgs have been incresingly stepping up to voice their concerns over the Online Safety Bill for weeks, with end-to-end-encrypted communication platforms Element, Session, Signal, Threema, Viber, WhatsApp and Wire urging the government to reconsider.
In an open letter earlier this month, the companies above branded the bill an “unprecedented threat to the privacy, safety and security of every UK citizen and the people with whom they communicate around the world.” They said the move would embolden “hostile governments who may seek to draft copy-cat laws.”®