Since 2010, when the government empowered ATVOD to regulate video-on-demand services, the direction of travel has been clear: there would little point in enforcing tough regulations on UK content providers, without also the power to block overseas services. Last Wednesday, the Queen’s Speech to Parliament finally confirmed what has been looming for several years. The huge and unelected communications regulator Ofcom is to be given extra powers over Internet content. This announcement was tucked innocuously away within the plans for the Digital Economy Bill, as follows:
“All websites containing pornographic images to require age verification for access”.
On its own, this is an odd announcement. After all, this provision has already been a UK regulation enforced by Ofcom since 2010, and was strengthened in the AVMS 2014 law (which prompted the famous face-sitting protest outside Parliament).So why is the government repeatedly announcing the same measure? It isn’t, really: it just reuses the “child protection” justification for different actions. This time, Ofcom is to be given powers to disrupt overseas providers that provide “adult” content without first verifying users’ ages. If this seems reasonable, keep in mind the following:
- The government consultation on online pornography, which closed only last month, has not yet even reported. What was its purpose then?
- When government talks about “pornography”, this is shorthand for any content it considers unsuitable for children, which (as long experience has shown) includes anything from sex education to drug information; from “extreme” political speech to self-harm support sites.
- Age verification is, in practise, riddled with problems, as I previously outlined here.
- The powers assigned to Ofcom, as yet not specified, are likely to be open-ended. So although the talk is of pursuing adult payment and advertising services, it seems a certainty that site blocking will be on the table soon.
What does this mean?
The Internet as we know it is going to change fundamentally. Mindgeek, owner of the largest porn services, has signalled that it will comply with the UK law, which means that sites like Pornhub and Youporn will no longer be freely available. Most major providers will doubtless follow. And sites featuring strong fetish content – even that which is legal in the United States and much of Europe – will not be able to comply with UK regulations at all, even if they implement age verification. But porn represents the tip of the iceberg.
In 2014, the major ISPs implemented optional “porn filters” in response to arm-twisting by David Cameron. The result was that about 20% of all websites became unavailable to users that switched on their “child protection” at home: a reminder that “porn” is a shorthand for a very broad range of content. Most users simply switched the filters off: this new regime will be far harder to circumvent.
Many services that allow user-contributed content will be classed as “adult”: Twitter will, unless it heavily self-censors its adult content. So, no doubt, will its live streaming service, Periscope, which could well be used to stream sexual material.
We will be watching as the Digital Economy Bill progresses. The wording of Ofcom’s new powers will be important to the future of free speech in the UK. Join our mailing list or Facebook page to keep track of events. This campaign is entirely funded by donations from supporters – you can donate here.