Wednesday, January 04, 2012

ARTICLE: Age Verification for Alcohol Websites

If you're reading this (an article on a food and booze centric website) then there's a fairly good chance that you've found yourself on the website for an alcohol company at some point(s) in time. At said website you were probably presented with a splash page that required you to enter your birth date or confirm that you were "of legal drinking age in your country/region/province/house". If not, check for an example.

It's a phenomenon that is at best puzzling and at worst inconvenient. Why do you need to confirm you're of legal age to view promotional material relating to alcohol, when you can turn on the TV or walk down the street and face the same promotional material with no restriction? More importantly, does a drop-down box asking your birth date really act as a deterrent to someone under the legal drinking age wanting to view the site?

[note: I'm considering those sites which do NOT sell alcohol; just those that market. Age verification for selling of alcohol is far more tricky]

The answer to the latter is a resounding no, as it's completely useless to use a drop-down box as an accurate age verification method. So, in the interests of filling space on the blog, I tried to find out why alcohol companies do it.

Basically: is the age verification screen required by law?

I'm going to preface this by saying that my "findings" were "found" with nothing more than a cursory Google search. If you use this as a basis to make a legal decision then you're a dead-set goose. This post is--at best--an attempt to stimulate conversation on the subject.

First off, I tried to find out what the laws were in each country. It was bloody hard to find anything on the legal requirements for alcohol websites so this may not be 100% correct and up to date. More than happy to change this if you have any better information at hand.

Australia: No legal requirement for non-selling websites, but laws for the sale of alcohol online.
New Zealand: Advertising standards require age verification. I can't see if it's federal law or an industry body but all NZ sites I visited use age verification.
United States: No legal requirement. However, it is "recommended" by government bodies and there is an industry code which also strongly recommends it.
Canada: No legal requirement, but a voluntary code.
Europe/UK: No legal requirements, but bigger names are part of a voluntary industry body called the European Forum for Responsible Drinking which does appear to require age verification.

Other comments:
- I couldn't find any countries that had specific rules around how age verification must be done. ie should there be a double-confirmation? Should the use use text and not a drop-down box (because the extra effort of typing will inspire truthfulness)?
- There appears to be a lot of activity around regulation in this area from both governments and industry bodies in the past couple of years (more in the "advertising material that is harmful to minors" sense than the literal "alcohol websites"). It's fairly assured that this will be an area of change and debate in the coming years that will undoubtedly lead to many alcohol companies having to change their approach (or lack thereof) to age verification online. Certainly so as online selling becomes more common for alcohol companies (particularly the smaller companies).

The overwhelming "vibe" of all of this is that there is no clear legal requirements for alcohol companies to include an age verification splash screen. HOWEVER, the overwhelming majority of companies (particularly the larger ones) include it as a sort of faux "commitment to responsible drinking".

This is more likely a commitment to "showing that we do all we can to discourage underage drinking" and cover their arses from any legal action resulting from lax attitudes or/and exploitation of the "gray" nature of current legislation.

So, given that there aren't many "legal" barriers stopping alcohol companies from removing the annoying age verification from their websites, should they? Well, from a user perspective the answer is an absolutely resounding yes. Current age verification is easily fudged and offers no real deterrent other than the annoyance of having to enter a valid birth date. Even as someone of legal drinking age, I will enter whatever age is more convenient that will let me into the fucking site.

I see the ethical standpoint as a moot point. Given it is so easy to get around, there shouldn't be any ethical complaints about not having age verification splash screens on the off chance that an underage individual accidentally falls onto the site and doesn't want to view the material and will spontaneously combust upon viewing of said material.

But from a legal standpoint... I have no legal background other than the Legal Studies class I took in year 11 in high school (and it was a public high school so you know it was bad)... from a legal standpoint, given the litigious nature of our society, you'd be crazy to not include the splash screen if you were a major alcohol company. If you're a small one then chances are you aren't going to get sued for marketing to minors, but do you want to take the risk?

But is there a risk at all, if we're only talking about advertising? In Australia, if an advertisement is considered to cross the line by someone then they take their grievance to some sort of advertising standards board who will rule on the matter. I can't see this option available in many countries for alcohol companies marketing online. Does everyone really need to be babied for the sake of vague laws?

Given the utter uselessness of age verification screens, do we need this "softly, softly" approach by alcohol companies online? What will it take for them to be eliminated? Clearer regulations? Let's do it then. Stop this consolation to the lowest common denominator who MAY complain about the material being too accessible.

Some good sites/posts/articles that helped put this post together:


Tina@foodboozeshoes said...

It's got to be so companies can just cover their butts if under-age drinking problems get to a legal junction - "It's not our fault - we made sure they were of legal age, and if they lied, then that's their issue."
I usually make out that I'm 80 years old, just in case they plan to use the data for marketing and other sinister causes ;)

Jobe said...

Exactly. Another annoying symptom of our overly litigious society.

I usually say I'm 100 or so.

Can't wait to see alcohol companies starting to market to everyone born in 1900 and 1911 ;)