Wikipedia refuses to carry out Online Safety Bill age checks

Wikipedia says that some of the educational material on its site may be misconstrued by regulators as pornography  (Wikimedia UK)
Wikipedia says that some of the educational material on its site may be misconstrued by regulators as pornography (Wikimedia UK)

Wikipedia says it will refuse to verify the age of UK users as required by the Online Safety Bill.

Non-compliance with the new regulatory framework could see the free encyclopedia shut down in the UK, according to the Wikimedia Foundation, which supports the website.

The Online Safety Bill - which has been making its way through parliament since a draft was published in May 2021 - is designed to clamp down on illegal material online.

It specifically targets sites that allow users to upload content, including social media and search engines. The legislation also requires “robust” age checks for sites that show pornography.

Wikipedia consists of millions of articles in different languages, written and edited by volunteers from around the world.

Lucy Crompton-Reid, chief executive of Wikimedia UK, told the BBC that some material on the site could trigger age verification. She warned that educational text and images about sexuality on Wikipedia could be “misinterpreted” as pornography.

“As it currently stands, the requirements of the Bill in terms of content moderation, age gating and user verification are incompatible with Wikipedia’s model, and the Wikimedia Foundation has stated that they will not be age gating the platform,” Reid wrote in a LinkedIn post.

In January, Wikipedia warned that the Bill could end up limiting freedom of expression.

It wants the law to follow the EU Digital Services Act, which differentiates between centralised content moderation carried out by employees and the Wikipedia-style model by community volunteers.

However, the government has said that it is unlikely Wikipedia would be classed as a category one service, those that would be subject to the bill’s strictest rules.

Meanwhile, the bill’s enforcer Ofcom has said it would focus on services where the risk of harm is the highest.

Wikipedia isn’t alone in criticising the heavy-handedness of the brewing legislation. Encrypted messaging services including WhatsApp, Signal and Element recently signed an open letter opposing the bill ahead of its final reading in the House of Lords.

The platforms argued the Bill could undermine end-to-end encryption – the privacy technology these companies provide – which is the most robust level of security as nobody other than the sender and intended recipient can read the message information.