Effective Age-gating for Online Alcohol Sales (Final Report)

‘Surprised?  No, not really!’

The ‘Effective Age-gating for Online Alcohol Sales’ report, funded by Alcohol Change UK, is published today.  Written by Jess Muirhead and Vic Grout, it considers the question of how easy it is for UK under 18s to purchase alcohol via the Internet, and makes five key recommendations:

Recommendation 1: The law must be clarified

Despite its best intentions, the current law is ambiguous in relation to how and where safeguards are to be applied to prevent under 18s obtaining alcohol online.  If the intention really is to allow age-checking on delivery as a substitute for online verification then that should be published as official guidance by the relevant authorities.  However, knowing such measures to be as ineffective as they are, it is to be hoped that the necessary clarification would move the law in the other direction: that robust online age verification – at the transaction stage – becomes a clear legal requirement.

Recommendation 2: No confidence should be placed on existing safeguards

There are no effective commonly applied methods of online age verification in widespread use, even if more than one approach is combined.  Any legal obligation or assumption based on existing measures is unfulfilled and/or flawed and must be unequivocally recognised as such.  (Although there are some sophisticated solutions emerging, and arguably ready, there are also some simpler, and more immediate, measures that can be taken: the next two recommendations.)

Recommendation 3: Items within online ‘shopping baskets’ should be considered individually

There is a particular problem when alcohol is a part of a larger (e.g. ‘grocery’) order.  However, the extension of existing systems to ‘flag’ items subject to age restriction online (in a similar manner to those already used offline) are simple and would lead to more effective application of age verification at the point of transaction.  This has the advantage of being a ‘software only solution’.

Recommendation 4: The use of MCC codes and bank authorisation processes should be extended

Existing MCC codes, and their use in authenticating a financial transaction back to a bank, can be extended beyond their existing ranges.  At present, whilst a transaction at a pub, bar or similar venue can be identified, the purchase of alcohol within a larger food, gift or groceries transaction cannot.  This is also easily rectified in software and would allow the bank authentication to deal with age-restricted goods if necessary.  (Alternatively, the current Level 3 Line Data system could conceivably be rolled out as an extended open protocol if existing commercial constraints were relaxed.)

Recommendation 5: Relevant emerging technology should be continuously monitored

Aside from those already discussed in relation to age-checking services under development or already available, there appear to be few disruptive technologies on the horizon that will add to existing approaches over the next few years.  (Many, in fact, work both for and against effective online age-verification; AI used visually to judge age, for example, can be fooled by AI that artificially ‘ages’ the image being processed.)  However, these are rapidly moving fields and must be monitored continuously.

Recommendations 3 and 4 will be most effective when applied together.

A blog summary of the research is available from: https://alcoholchange.org.uk/blog/2020/how-easily-can-under-18s-buy-alcohol-online

The full report can be read here: https://alcoholchange.org.uk/publication/effective-age-gating-for-online-alcohol-sales

It’s hoped that the research will continue so watch this space …

About Vic Grout

Chair, Clwyd South Labour Party; Professor of Computing Futures, Wrexham Glyndwr University View all posts by Vic Grout

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