The UK’s VoD regulator ATVOD has closed its doors effective 1st January, and its powers have moved within the huge and powerful super-regulator, Ofcom.
Regular readers will be somewhat familiar with the strange and twisted story of ATVOD. In 2010, the regulator came into being in order to regulate VoD alongside broadcast TV, as required by the European Union. But instead of focusing on the convergence of broadcast and VoD, ATVOD instead showed a remarkable obsession with closing down porn sites. Its regulations – especially a requirement for adult sites to verify the ages of all visitors – resulted in the virtual collapse of the UK porn industry. I was one of a number of adult site operators who approached the regulator for guidance in its earliest days, only to find that our necks were first on the block (most UK adult businesses stayed wisely silent and migrated their operations overseas).
From the start, ATVOD’s CEO Pete Johnson showed a remarkable lack of interest in working with the UK’s small adult industry, and chose instead to wipe the bulk of it out. Mine was among the first wave of businesses closed down or forced to move overseas (Playboy TV was another, which moved its headquarters from London to Canada).
As I have pointed out, this was never really about porn: instead, ATVOD has been using the regulations to call for more censorship of the Internet. They have argued that, since British porn has been ‘cleaned up’, then Something Must Be Done to stop British consumers watching porn from overseas. The obvious, but largely unspoken end result will be the introduction of an official state censor with the power to order ISPs to block sites.
While sexual freedom campaigners are delighted to see the anti-porn regulator go, and some are claiming this as a victory, the change is, in reality, ominous, and is unlikely to result in any loosening of porn regulations: in fact Ofcom runs one of the world’s most unnecessarily prudish regimes of TV censorship, and is unlikely to be more relaxed about Internet content. The end of ATVOD has probably been largely driven by disquiet among large broadcasters, who have reportedly been increasingly annoyed to be funding an anti-porn witch-hunt.
Now that Ofcom has taken the reins, we can expect to see the regulator lobbying for more censorship powers against ‘unacceptable’ overseas content – which doubtless will go far broader than pornography. Currently, a private members bill to enable censorship is in progress through Parliament. Like previous non-government attempts, this will probably fail, but we should watch out for the contents of the Queen’s Speech this Spring. Any mention of ‘online safety’ or ‘protecting children online’ will herald the impending end of free Internet access for British citizens.
My book, Porn Panic!, which documents the increasing attacks on sexual and other expression in the UK, will be published shortly. Please join our mailing list to be alerted about the book, and receive other updates from Sex & Censorship.