Australia is a long way from deciding which tools will be used to limit children’s access to adult material online, while the nation’s eSafety Commissioner said it’s unlikely that age bans for social media access will happen any time soon.

The difficulty in developing an online age verification plan was laid bare in Senate Estimates on Thursday when Department of Communications officials were grilled about the progress of the government’s $6.5 million age assurance trial.

The program, announced by the Albanese government earlier this month as part of a suite of measures to keep Australians safe online, was slated as a key step for preventing minors from accessing explicit content.

Department officials confirmed in Estimates on Thursday that the pilot will not compel technology platforms to test any age verification tools themselves, instead starting by evaluating the effectiveness of existing tools for limiting access.

“We will be working closely with industry as a whole, but they won't be undertaking the trial, we will,” assistant secretary Bridget Gannon told senator Sarah Henderson.

The department said it has not yet finalised a shortlist for the types of tools that will be under review.

Social media bans “no snap thing”

ESafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant told the Estimates hearing that technology companies should be “reading the global tea leaves” about what governments expect from them on age verification, but noted there was little chance an age ban on social media access would happen quickly.

“Until these companies have effective age assurance systems in place, it’s going to be hard to do anything like a ban,” she said.

“We are taking the right steps to get there but we have to recognise this is not going to be a snap thing that happens overnight.”

Inman Grant said it was critical that her agency had access to data on how many minors are using social platforms.

On Thursday the Albanese government amended the Basic Online Safety Determination - which sets out the government’s safety expectations of online service providers, a move that should help boost visibility of how many children are using the services.

The new determination includes an expectation that the platforms provide a breakdown of their Australian users, including how many are children, when the eSafety Commissioner asks for it.

Inman Grant said while it was not currently clear how many kids are using technology platforms across the country, there are several data points that companies can draw on to identify underage users.

“We had one platform tell us that they can look at 85 different signals or indications of how old a person is,” she said.

“Things like, generally speaking, 11-year-olds talk to other 11-year-olds.”

Sextortion threat still rife

The eSafety Commissioner also highlighted the countless ways young people face harm online, including threats that cannot be entirely solved with age-gating technology.

There is currently a “huge disincentive” for app stores to enforce their own policies limiting apps that link to pornographic content, for example, because revenue is tied to sales, Inman Grant said.

The rising threat of sextortion, where criminals threaten to release intimate photos of online users unless they pay a ransom, is also an issue where regulators want to see more action from the platforms.

The commissioner said her office had received a tripling of reports of sexual extortion last year and noted that while the standard age range for targets is 16–24-year-olds, the vast majority of those affected are young adults aged between 18-24.

Inman Grant said her agency had given social media platforms “very clear feedback” on what they could do to reduce the number of users who are consistently creating fake or imposter accounts for the purpose of targeting children, noting the companies need to take more action.

“Platforms have a huge role to play here - and my view is they are not doing enough,” she said.

She said young people and their families must be educated about what to do if they find themselves on the end of a sexual extortion threat, including collecting evidence and reporting it to the social media platform, but not to pay.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure here because what we are actually talking about is organised criminals weaponsing platforms like Instagram and Snap.”