Trading Digitally: Understanding The Regulatory Requirements For Selling Age Restricted Products Online

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E-commerce continues to grow in popularity with over 20% of purchases expected to occur online in 2024. This growth can be attributed to various factors, including online retailers now selling a variety of products and customers increasingly looking for discounts, greater choice and convenience.

In recent years consumers have increasingly used online retailers to purchase items including alcohol, tobacco, vaping and bladed items. As the sale of these age-restricted products and services becomes more common online, e-commerce platforms must be aware of their responsibilities, ensuring that only individuals of the correct age can purchase them.

Legislating E-commerce

E-commerce legislation is complex and challenging to navigate. Rules differ according to jurisdictions, cultural norms, geographic markets and regulatory frameworks. Requirements also vary from country to country in trading blocs, such as the EU and regionally such as state-to-state in the US.

Certain products such as alcohol, may be banned in some jurisdictions or regions with strict religious or cultural rules. Age requirements to purchase identical products may also vary between countries. For example, the US has a higher age requirement to purchase alcohol than European countries including the UK, France and Germany. There is no unified global approach, with individual countries and regions having a variety of legal frameworks in terms of the age assurance required.

Therefore, e-commerce businesses needing to implement age assurance solutions should look to both international standards and local legislation to guide their implementation. This is particularly important if they plan to sell age-restricted products internationally. Therefore, to comply with regulatory requirements, business leaders should understand and address the challenges surrounding age assurance. This prevents legal repercussions and makes their platforms safer.

Challenges

User Experience

As many consumers shop online for ease, age assurance processes must be robust yet frictionless, so as not to obstruct the user journey. If customers encounter difficulties during the purchasing process, they are likely to bounce to other (often less reputable) sites, resulting in a potential loss of customers. Therefore, the technology used on e-commerce sites must be easy to use and feel effortless for the customer.

Cross Border Challenges

In most cases, vendors sell to the same country and jurisdiction. This is particularly true for small and medium-sized businesses that are unlikely to sell in large quantities to warrant long-distance postage. However, international vendors must work case-by-case to ensure they align with international legislation.

Required Technology

When it comes to age assurance, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Therefore, with age verification and age estimation offerings, optionality is key. The market requires flexible and inclusive options that address individual preferences while mitigating the risks associated with bias and exclusion. Methods include email address and facial age estimation, as well as verification methods including government-issued ID, credit card, mobile phone number and name & address checks.

When the site requests a customer to undergo an age estimation or verification process, platforms must communicate why their data is needed. This helps build confidence in the platform as consumers understand how their data is being handled and what it is used for.

Collaborating with Industry Partners

Online vendors have a duty to operate in a compliant way, while regulators are responsible for ensuring there is robust and equitable enforcement of related legislative requirements. If these regulations and processes are applied properly, underage users should not be able to ‘shop around’ to find the least stringent processes. Moreover, vendors should collaborate with a trusted and certified technology provider to ensure that their age assurance processes are both frictionless and compliant.

Safety Through Age Assurance

For online vendors, robust, frictionless age assurance solutions can improve safety, protect their reputation while ensuring underage consumers do not have access to age-restricted products. Those giving access to minors risk reputational damage or even regulatory repercussions.