Thursday, 11 January 2018

No Sex Please, We're British

No Sex Please, We're British

It is now less than four months until the government starts enforcing their latest ill thought out piece of morality legislation - from April 2018 any website containing pornographic content will require visitors to fully verify their age or be forcibly blocked by ISP providers. In other words, unless you're willing to input sensitive personal data into every website designed to titillate, you will be prevented from viewing anything the government deems too risque.

The point of the legislation is to protect children which, of course, is an admirable aim. We all want young people to be safe online. How blocking access to Pornhub for anyone with the good sense not to leave themselves open to credit card fraud will achieve this is less clear. Children, the government says, should not be able to stumble across pornography.

This was presumably why parental filters and their ilk were developed. Although, as anyone who employs such restrictions will know, it's not as simple as saying 'no porn, please'. Sometimes the filter casts the net too wide - school filters for guns and Nazis, for instance, also prevent access to BBC GCSE revision guides on WW2 - other times the filter doesn't cast it wide enough. Tumblr, a popular social media website primarily aimed at teenagers, springs to mind. The site is renowned for porn blogs, x-rated spambots, and so on. As the website is not intended for the distribution of porn it should be exempt from the law - yet a cursory use of the search function reveals how easy it is to access inappropriate content. As an individual I can block or allow websites on a case by case basis for the needs of myself and my family. An institution enforcing a blanket ban is unable to use such a nuanced approach.

(And this isn't even something unique to the internet age. Just think of how many classics of literature - openly available at any library or book shop - contain sex scenes, for example. It's easy to say 'ban sex' but much more difficult to enforce it. Especially if you want to start arguing the toss, pun intended, about what counts as pornography. Does something have to depict penetrative sex or even nudity for it to have been principally created for the purposes of inducing sexual arousal?)

To someone, somewhere, this is some seriously exciting stuff...

That makes something like this almost impossible to police, although rumours are that the government is going to give the BBFC the responsibility. MindGeek, one of the proposed providers for the age verification service, claims up to 4 million websites could be blocked unless they comply - up to and including social media networks. Unsurprisingly the government has been painfully slow to provide proper guidance as to which sites will be affected by the ban, and how the age verification will actually work.

The reality is a) the law will be patchily enforced, if at all, and will make little difference beyond politicians grandstanding about how Britain is getting back to its core values [of censorship and restriction]. Much like the ban already in place on 'alternative' porn, which bans the production and distribution of porn containing acts like spanking, hair pulling and dirty talk in the UK. Or b) huge databases of sensitive information being held by companies vulnerable to hacking - just waiting for something like the Ashley Madison scandal but on a bigger scale.

The impact assessment came out in December and has already been signed off on because the benefits outweigh the risks. Allegedly. ISPReview has created a handy list of the risks it identified:

  • Deterring adults from consuming content as a result of privacy/ fraud concerns linked to inputting ID data into sites and apps, also some adults may not be able to prove their age online; 
  • Development of alternative payment systems and technological work-arounds could mean porn providers do not comply with new law, and enforcement is impossible as they are based overseas, so the policy goal would not be achieved; 
  • The assumption that ISPs will comply with the direction of the regulator; 
  • Reputational risks including Government censorship, over-regulation, freedom of speech and freedom of expression. 
  • The potential for online fraud could raise significantly, as criminals adapt approaches in order to make use of false AV systems / spoof websites and access user data; 
  • The potential ability of children, particularly older children, to bypass age verification controls is a risk. However, whilst no system will be perfect, and alternative routes such as virtual private networks and peer-to-peer sharing of content may enable some under-18s to see this content, Ofcom research indicates that the numbers of children bypassing network level filters, for example, is very low (ca. 1%). 
  • Adults (and some children) may be pushed towards using ToR and related systems to avoid AV where they could be exposed to illegal and extreme material that they otherwise would never have come into contact with.

Of course, there is a precedent for this progressive legislation. The Russian government blocked access to the most popular porn websites in 2016 because they were detrimental to the development of children who might access them. Russian users now have to set up accounts to access Pornhub and its sister sites via VKontakte - the Russian equivalent of Facebook - whose accounts require a mobile phone number, only legally available in Russia with the presentation of valid passport information.

As the law is in large part designed to stop teenagers accessing porn on their phones perhaps we should have adopted that approach instead. No mobiles for under 18s, no underage access to inappropriate material...

This might seem a strange topic for a parenting blog but I just don't believe that a blanket ban on online porn is the way to protect children, no more than a blanket ban on mobile phones. As a parent I have tools at my disposal to restrict internet access. As a corporate parent it is my responsibility to ensure children in Torfaen are kept safe from the darker side of the internet. You do that by being frank and open. Sex education needs to explain that porn and reality are not always in sync - the same as any other aspect of the media - not that two consenting adults having sex is so dangerously deviant a young person legally old enough to have sex themselves can't even access a website where they might watch it!

My feeling is that this is a piece of knee jerk legislation that is only going to continue to generate more problems than solutions.

ETA: Another even less talked about clause of the Digital Economy Act 2017 is the government's intention to forcibly block live action depictions of 'non-conventional sex acts' from UK internet users. These include shocking activities being indulged in by consenting adults like, wait for it, spanking, face-sitting, and 'squirting' (female ejaculation). Oh, and talking about any of the prohibited acts while taking part in 'conventional' sex acts. Because I am sure we will all sleep safer in our beds knowing that those in charge of the country deem female orgasm too disgusting to be witnessed by anyone...

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