Tag Archives: age verification

The Queen’s Speech 2016: Online Censorship Now Official Policy

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”.

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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.

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What’s the Problem With Age Verification?

Last December, a law – known as AVMS 2014 – was snuck into force without a parliamentary debate. This law had two aspects: one of which was largely ignored. The part that wasn’t ignored criminalised the distribution of porn stronger than the BBFC’s tame R18 classification. This effectively outlawed the depiction of acts considered beyond-the-pale by the British establishment, even though these acts are perfectly legal to carry out in private, and provoked the memorable face-sitting protest outside Parliament.

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The aspect of AVMS 2014 that the coverage largely overlooked related to age verification, making it mandatory for adult video providers to confirm that each visitor is over 18 before allowing them to see any form of explicit image or video. Arguably, this part of the law was far more significant, but on the surface seemed more reasonable. This regulation has actually been enforced by ATVOD since 2010: the 2014 law merely strengthened the existing rules.

But demanding age verification by adult service providers has far deeper implications than might be immediately obvious, and ones that inevitably have implications for the existence of an uncensored Internet.

Excluding Adults

The first problem is that, whatever the means of age verification, there will be adults that cannot get through it. Current age verification solutions include: using a credit card; providing passport or driving license details; using a mobile phone that has already been age-verified. But many adults cannot provide any of these things, and furthermore many wouldn’t want to, for privacy reasons.

Unfortunately, the UK has no strong protection against censorship, but the US does: and in America, the Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that onerous age verification is undoubtedly censorship, so cannot be enforced by the state. So in “conservative” America, the legal system has far more problem with adults being prevented from watching porn than in “protecting children” from seeing it. The greater harm (according to the judges) is censorship, not smut: this is as America’s founding fathers intended, as they knew that censorship can be introduced for all manner of spurious reasons, and once initiated, it tends to grow.

It’s Only the UK

The AVMS regulations are laid down by the EU. But here’s the odd part: only the UK has decided that AVMS requires an expensive, activist regulator along ATVOD lines; only the UK has interpreted the AVMS scope to include adult websites (the regulations were originally designed to cover TV catch-up services); and only the UK has interpreted the regulations to mean that adult websites should implement age verification.

The Internet is Global

Here’s the real, huge problem with all this. How can regulations that only cover UK-based web businesses have any meaningful effect? There are two possible interpretations: either, that ATVOD is an expensive but powerless quango, or that the government will introduce blocking of overseas adult websites on a mass scale.

Until recently, the latter option sounded like a conspiracy theory, but during the general election campaign, the Tories announced they would be blocking sites that don’t conform to AVMS. This would require the creation of an official UK Internet censor – the first such thing in any democratic society – and probably entail the blocking of millions of sites that are considered unsuitable for children.

A “Perverts Database”

Aside from censorship, privacy is the other major concern. Age verification providers will know which sites each user is trying to access. Is it acceptable and necessary that one’s credit card provider, mobile provider or other authority could know you tried to access BustySpankedSluts.com last Friday night?

Evangelists for age verification suggest that this problem could be averted by the creation of an “anonymising hub”. This would shield the adult site and the age verification service from each other, so that the site operator need not know your mobile number, and O2 will never know you had a wank to BustySpankedSluts.com.

But potentially, the hub multiplies the privacy issue. Now, there is a central database linking individuals to porn sites. Who would have the right to access, browse and search the database? Would the police ever have reason to request to access it? Would some alliance of hackers steal and publish data, just to prove they could, or use it for blackmail? Once this data is stored in a single place, the privacy implications are astounding.

Is a 17 Year-old a “Minor”?

ATVOD sets the age limit for accessing pornography at 18: it therefore defines 16 and 17 year olds as children, despite the age of consent being 16 in the UK. This means that debit cards can’t be used for age verification, as they can be issued to 16 year olds, and so makes age verification more onerous (many adults don’t own credit cards).

No Evidence of Harm

It’s worth a reminder at this point that the AVMS restrictions are predicated on stopping minors from viewing content that “might seriously impair” them. And yet, research carried out by Ofcom on behalf of the UK government, as well as research carried out across the European Union, is unanimous: no evidence can be found that pornography is capable of “seriously impairing”, and in fact the government’s own evidence suggests that pornography is associated with a reduction in harm. (Ofcom report – key finding is bottom page 15/top page 16).

Think of the Children!

All of this overlooks a simple fact: child protection filters are standard these days on all devices, from tablets and phones to PCs. Family brands like Tesco – which have reputations to maintain – sell their own child-friendly tablets. But such filters don’t empower or enrich regulators. Nor do they help make the case for censorship, or provide the opportunity to snoop on citizens, so they are ignored when the case for age verification is made.

While most EU authorities have thus concluded that there is no need for server-side age verification, Ofcom, ATVOD and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport have decided otherwise, and have implemented a “precautionary” system. This seems akin to fitting expensive locks to all fridges, in order to prevent teenagers freezing to death in the kitchen: it’s never happened, but you can’t prove it never will, can you?