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Proposed age law for online retail faces Parliamentary scrutiny

A proposal that will force online retailers to take extra steps to ensure that young people cannot buy or access inappropriate goods or material will move one step closer to becoming law on Monday.

The Online Purchasing of Goods and Services (Age Verification) Bill will receive its second reading in the House of Commons on Monday. The second reading is the stage before it enters the Committee system for detailed discussion and amendment.

The Bill proposes making it a requirement "for the providers of goods and services and the providers of specified facilities enabling the purchase of such goods and services to take reasonable steps, in certain circumstances, to establish the age of customers making such purchases".

The proposed law refers to goods which it is already illegal to sell to people under the specified ages, such as 18 for cigarettes and alcohol.

The peer who introduced the Bill in the House of Lords, Baroness Massey of Darwen, said at a reading of it that "it would require every retailer who sells age-restricted goods and services over the internet to establish a system that would allow them to determine whether or not a person buying such goods or services met the legal minimum age".

It had previously been introduced in the House of Commons but ran out of Parliamentary time.

"The law on the sale of age-restricted goods is clear. What are missing are mechanisms for ensuring that the law is being observed," said Baroness Massey.

"Before the internet, the purchase of goods was relatively simple. If there was a question over the age of someone wishing to gamble or buy alcohol, tobacco, solvents, knives, guns and so on, this could be checked by means of identification, and the sale could, one hoped, be refused. Now, these goods and services are available online, as are pornography and drugs. Children can bypass regulations by using a computer," she said. "Self-regulation is not working. Very few online retailers have procedures in place to prevent underage young people buying almost anything over the internet."

"The law is being got round in the online provision of goods and services to underage people. The Bill would cut out this loophole, protect children and provide reassurance to concerned parents," she said.

Some peers in the Lords raised objections to the Bill, though. The Earl of Erroll said that concerns over payments technology and over the scope of the Bill should cause concern.

"We must allow young people to buy things online. Many things are only obtainable that way nowadays - certainly the better bargains," he said. "We must not outlaw methods of payment that will completely stop them buying anything."

The Earl of Erroll also warned that the Bill was in fact not just about age-restricted goods but gave Government the power to bar access to other materials.

"The second major problem refers to unconstrained powers. Clause 1(2) provides that the Secretary of State can make regulations that could extend to things that are not covered by legal ages or goods and services covered under current laws. The legal duty to comply with these laws already exists, and I do not think that Parliament should micromanage people in how they do these things. We should not be passing laws just to send a message. That is not a good idea."

"One of the challenges is enforcement," he said. "It has taken a long time to fund a police central e-crime unit, for instance. It would be better to fund people who can do something about the problem rather than passing more laws and regulations and making great statements."

The online retail industry is sceptical about the proposal. One industry figure told OUT-LAW.COM that the industry had concerns about legislating against activities that were already against the law, and that measures put in place could hinder the online retail industry.

Editor's note, 15/10/2009: The original version of this story suggested that cigarettes could lawfully be sold to 16 year-olds. The minimum age limit was raised from 16 to 18 in 2007. We apologise for the error.

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