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The Stupidity Of Age “Verification”

by Oliver Klimek on September 7, 2012

I guess all of you are familiar with the annoyingly ubiqutous age verification pages that pop up whenever you visit a website of a whisky distillery or any other kind of alcohol brand. Some corporate Twitter accounts have taken this to the next level by requiring anyone who follows them to go through an age check page as well.

Yes, I know. It is all for a good cause. Preventing ‘underage’ youngsters from drinking alcohol is a very important issue, we all have read reports about binge drinking teens needing to be hospitalized in state of coma. No-one would seriously encourage such behaviour. For this reason the sale of alcohol to minors is forbidden, and rightly so. Utmost care is to be taken that shops and bars don’t serve them.

Since the alcoholic drinks industry wants to avoid any association with encouraging minors to consume their products, they invented the age verification page any website visitor has to pass. Usually this requires you to enter your date of birth and your country of reisidence to determine if you are of legal age to drink alcohol.

Now, wait a minute. Is it actually illegal for minors to read about alcohol? If so, all advertising for alcohol on billboards and in magazines or newspapers would be illegal. I guess this is not the case. It is perfectly legal for a 10 year old to look at a pictures of whisky bottles and even to read the text beneath.

Actually the very same 10 year old could easily access a whisky, gin or vodka website, pretending to be born on 25th December 1905, and look at all the glitzy booze bottles. Any consequences? Of course not, neither for the kid nor for the company. Nobody would have broken any law anyway.

A quick look in the dictionary tells me that to verify means to make sure something is correct. So the age verification page on a booze website would have to make sure that nobody under the legal drinking age can access the site. Since a proper age verification is virtually impossible to implement, the use of such pages is slacktivism at its best: to demonstrate awareness of a problem without actual effect. Or have there been any studies that age ‘verification’ pages actually prevent minors from getting physical access to alcohol?

If the alcoholic drink industry is able to prove the effectiveness of their age verification pages, I will withdraw my complaints. If not, they should get rid of this nonsense.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Jordan September 7, 2012 at 6:47 pm

The Oregon Liquor Search page does the same thing. How does knowing that a particular bottle of spirits exists at a particular place contribute to minors acquiring alcohol? It’s not as if they don’t know where the liquor stores are (or can’t look it up on Google) and I doubt they’re going to be trying to get their hands on a bottle of Auchentoshan Bordeaux Cask for a night of binge drinking.

At a bare minimum, it’d be nice if everyone switched to “Are you over 18/21″ yes/no buttons. Having to input a date every single time is *really* annoying and it’s not exactly a major hurdle for minors to surmount.

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Glenn September 8, 2012 at 1:37 am

Can’t tell you how often I am 1 Janurary 1900 when I am visiting whisky sites… So yes, find it very annoying as well. In Australia the offences in regards to alcohol and minors (under 18 years) are:

Illegal to sell to, or supply alcohol to a minor*
Illegal for minors to consume alcohol in a licensed premises
Illegal for minors to consume alcohol in a public place

*It is, however, not illegal for the supply of alcohol to minors in a private residence. So the consumption of alchohol by minors is not a blanket prohibition by any measure. This is of course not getting into the discussion of why it is not a great idea for minors to be drinking alcohol in the first place, but really what protection to the website owner does adding the age verification do at all?

A quick whip around of a number of Australian whisky and wine websites, as well as websites that sell alcohol shows most do not have that “front door” age verification which I have thought is always handy.

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Oliver Klimek September 8, 2012 at 5:29 am

Yes, I do find it quite ironic that sites elling alcohol usually don’t have an age check page. Of course I hope they somehow make sure that they don’t sell to minors, but it clearly seems they have recognised that such a page is useless.

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Richard Sather September 8, 2012 at 8:14 am

The magic umbrella of age verification will be employed by liquor information sites as long as there is a perceived threat of legislation against and, or ligitation, targeting the liquor industry.
Caution trumps commonsense here. What is the solution?

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Keith September 8, 2012 at 12:02 pm

Ahh yes, I love this stupidity, in fact it wasn’t long ago when the oldest man in the world (oldest by more than 800 years) was verified as a suitable whisky drinker in a renowned ‘dry’ country.

Here’s my take on it thanks to a whisky company’s stupidity on twitter:
http://www.whisky-emporium.com/Blogs/2012-03-Mar/Blog.htm#Ageless

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Billy September 11, 2012 at 11:23 pm

I’ve spoken to a number of people in the whisky industry (whisky companies, not retailers like my own place of work) and the reason I’ve been given is that it isn’t legal to advertise booze to minors in a number of countries around the world. As the web is a world wide thing (that’s all three Ws in the sentence) and the drinks companies don’t want to get in trouble in some of the countries they sell in they put in the bare minimum allowed – something that puts the blame of potential lawbreaking in the hands of the kid looking at the website.

As far as I know, retailers don’t get hit by this as a shop isn’t generally considered (in of itself) to be advertising, whereas a website/facebook page/twitter stream is. It’s also around here that my understanding of the potential pitfalls of foreign laws kick in, as my twittering for work might fall under the auspices of advertising and I’ve not looked into age-gating our stream. Our Facebook page is marked as drink related though, by FB policy, so that they can allow access to it in accordance with local law.

It might all be rubbish, but it sounds on the edge of convincing to me. That all said, it doesn’t explain (even with recent cookie legislation) why none of the sites remember my age even though I’ve ticked the ‘remember me’ box. That’s not a particularly hard bit of programming…

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Billy September 11, 2012 at 11:26 pm

Missed a bit: the other reason why whisky companies do it is for a similar reason as to why they put links to DrinkAware on their site – demonstration/action towards discouraging minors from drinking, as is government policy in most countries. It’s a token, just like the DrinkAware link, but it shows that they are thinking about it and doing something.

You may take the above statement with whatever level of cynicism you think appropriate.

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Oliver Klimek September 12, 2012 at 9:19 am

I see the point, but it still is nothing more than a fig leaf. No insurance will pay for burglary if you leave your back door open. If it really should come to a legal battle between an affected country and the industry, I don’t think a barrier that can be crossed by primary school kid will be sufficient to convince the courts of the effectiveness of such measures.

Living in Germany I am not allowed to view certain thigs in Youtube because there is a legal battle going on between them and the German copyrights agency. How would the agency react if Youtube just put up a “Do you live in Germany” check box? No, they have an IP based filter. There are ways to get around this of course, but it requires a bit more effort than just ticking a box.

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Billy September 12, 2012 at 9:33 am

Fig leaf it may be, but it is all that is currently required (or what they think is required – I don’t know of any case going to court yet). If the courts start playing up then we’ll see IP filtering (at least from the larger companies with a budget for a website) and blocking of sites for certain areas. If the choice is between a token effort that lets things go on as they are and no effort that leads to legal action and sites being closed then I can see why they’d go for the former.

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