Page last updated at 22:45 GMT, Friday, 9 May 2008 23:45 UK

Tackling under-age online sales

By Joe Lynam
Business reporter, BBC News

Boy using a computer
British online firms do not need proof that customers are over 18
Buying products online couldn't be easier.

With a few clicks shoppers can browse through dozens of websites and choose size, colour, shape and destination - all from the privacy of the home.

That's great if it's a CD, book or generic product being procured but that self-same ease of purchase is increasingly of concern to parents who can no longer control what their children are buying online.

Young people are using the anonymity of the web to buy all types of products suitable only for adults - made easy by purchasing prepaid credit cards which don't require stringent proof of age.

A recent survey of some 1,000 individuals between 13 and 17 years old found that nearly half - 48% - of teenage boys under 18 have tried to buy adult DVDs or violent video games online over the past year.

Over three quarters were successful.

And with 5% of 14-year-olds having successfully purchased alcohol on the internet, parents and politicians are calling for tighter controls in cyberspace.

Gambling exception

Back bench Labour MP Margaret Moran has introduced a private members bill in the House of Commons calling for online retailers to take "reasonable steps to establish the age of its customers" when selling adult goods and services.

That bill gets its second reading on 16 May.

Gambling chips
Online gambling firms are strict about who can use their services

Unlike the British high street, where proving your age is mandatory when buying alcohol or pornography, there are currently no laws forcing British online retailers to secure proof that customers are over 18.

In reality, that often means simply ticking a box.

The exception to that rule is online gambling, where companies are required to have proof someone's age before allowing them to bet.

Most of Britain's online gaming service providers use software by the GB Group, which specialises in this area.

The company uses a series of algorithms to cross check personal data such as name, date of birth and voter registered address against publicly held data such as the birth registry, voter lists and passport details.

But even those checks are not completely foolproof.

"We build up a level of assurance incrementally by accessing one or more of these data bases," according to GB's chief executive Richard Law.

"But the only way to really positively identify that someone is who they claim to be, is by using DNA."


Despite this, the take-up of online age verification software by the UK's largest retailers has been slow.

"There's no evidence that there are number of significant instances of youngsters buying age restricted products online," says Richard Dodd from the British Retail Consortium.

"No responsible retailer would have any interest at all in selling those sorts of things to youngsters."

"And there are a number of protections in place, for example websites usually need you to register and that will be liked with an ID check. If you buy something like alcohol, the retailer will only deliver that face to face to your home."

Confidential information

And there's the issue of data protection.

By its very nature age verification software requires users to enter even more personal information online, which in the wrong hands could make the growing problem of identity theft even worse.

"All businesses which operate in this area are bound by the provisions of the Data Protection Act", says Richard Law.

"That means that you can't use that information for anything other than the purpose for which it is intended. So after the check is performed, the information collected is either kept confidential or discarded."

Whilst privacy groups may not welcome increasing amounts of data being entered online, parents will no doubt relish the prospect of making it tougher for their wayward teenagers to buy forbidden produce online.

Facebook agrees child safety plan
08 May 08 |  Technology
YouTube rolls out filtering tools
16 Oct 07 |  Technology

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