First, here’s the good news. Porn-maker Pandora Blake announced yesterday that her fetish website, Dreams of Spanking, will be switched back on, following a decision by Ofcom that it did not, after all, fall within their remit. The site had previously been targeted by the video-on-demand regulator ATVOD on the basis that it lacked age verification controls, and contained content that was harder than would legally be allowed under the UK’s insipid DVD regulations. In January, ATVOD was closed down, and its powers brought within Ofcom, the UK’s media regulator and censor.
Blake’s appeal was one that has been successfully used a number of times since the video-on-demand (AVMS) regulations were introduced in 2010. AVMS is an EU framework designed specifically to regulate TV-like video-on-demand services. ATVOD, however, attempted to stretch the definition of “TV-like” as far as possible, in order to shore up its own income and power. Its first overreach, in 2011, was an attempt to define newspaper websites as TV-like, and thus bring news content within its remit. A raft of publications, led by the Sun, appealed that their content was not TV-like. Ofcom agreed with them, and ATVOD was forced to back down.
Playboy TV attempted to make a similar appeal with regard to its websites, but lost. The first porn site to successfully appeal was Urban Chick – Supremacy Cell (UC-SC – listen to my podcast interview with the site’s owner). So UC-SC became the only porn site legally allowed to remain in the UK without having to meet ATVOD’s stringent rules. Dreams of Spanking now becomes the second such site. So we have the bizarre situation where exactly two websites are legally allowed to operate in the UK without Ofcom’s oversight. Can this continue? No.
Here’s the not-so-good news. Blake’s site is probably the last porn site to wriggle through the “not TV-Like” loophole, and its reprieve is a temporary one. Yesterday’s media celebrations are overblown. For example, in Broadly: Feminist Porn Director Gets Big Spanking Win for Fetish Sites. But this isn’t true. It is extremely unlike that any more fetish sites will be following UC-SC and Dreams of Spanking into libertarian paradise. And furthermore, those two sites have only won a short stay.
Ofcom, along with the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, has long been lobbying for greater powers to censor the Internet. One of its gripes has been the “TV-like” loophole which Pandora Blake and others have successfully used. The government’s consultation on “protecting children”, issued earlier this year, made clear that government plans to remove this restriction, extending Ofcom’s jurisdiction from video-on-demand services to all forms of adult content, even including still imagery.
Ofcom’s loathing of pornography is well known, and it hasn’t suddenly seen the light. To refuse Blake’s appeal would have opened up the regulator to challenge and scrutiny: its existing powers have dubious legal status. Far better to wait a few months until the new Digital Economy Bill is passed into law; at that stage, it can happily pull the plug on all the adult sites it chooses, without the risk of legal challenge.
So while this is a wonderful personal triumph for Pandora Blake, nobody should believe this represents a movement by the authorities, who now have victory within their sights. Ofcom and DCMS have quietly put the pieces into place for Internet censorship, and will hardly get distracted now by a couple of small fetish websites that have – for the moment – evaded their net. Nothing of significance will happen until Ofcom’s new powers are set in stone by the Digital Economy Bill – and then Blake’s site, along with many other porn, webcam and erotica sites will become illegal, and begin to vanish from the web.