Tag Archives: ofcom

The Porn Block Failed. Now the Next Ofcom Censorship Bandwagon Begins

This week, we learned that Ofcom is to be given censorship powers over social media and other web sites. This is merely the latest attempt by the regulator/censor to take control of online content.

For some years, this blog has covered attempts by the British state to censor the Internet. The original cover story for implementing this was an age verification system to ‘protect children from porn’. While this sounded reasonable on the surface, this idea required the state to be given the power to block websites that did not comply to the rules. And this required the creation of a state Internet censor with broad powers to block content. After spending more than a decade pursuing this goal, the government pulled the plug on the whole scheme last October; I explained the decision and the background here. In a later twist, the age verification industry announced last month that it is suing the government for cancelling the plans.

Behind the scenes, Ofcom has been lobbying hard. While Ofcom combines many roles and powers over the media and communications, of greatest concern (to me, at least) is its role as television censor. Not only does the regulator enforce tight controls over content broadcast in the UK, but it actually writes its own censorship rules. This effectively gives Ofcom the power to write British law without consulting Parliament, which is an astonishing amount of power for an unelected body to hold. And not only does Ofcom get to decide what is ‘illegal’, but it can issue huge fines to anyone who breaches its ‘laws’. Ofcom is thus judge, jury and executioner.

Broadcasters can be fined hundreds of thousands of pounds for breaching the Ofcom censorship code. Naturally, the end result is that British broadcasters self-censor in order to avoid the risk of being fined. The regime disproportionately affects smaller broadcasters, many of whom could barely afford a fine at this level.

Unsurprisingly, Ofcom’s censorship power is seen by many as a threat to civil liberties. Even David Cameron, in 2009 before he became Prime Minister, promised to cut Ofcom’s powers, and in particular to remove its undemocratic ability to write policy. Once he had been elected, however, his plans sank without trace.

The new announcement, in which Ofcom was officially put in charge of regulating the Internet, was widely expected. Few anti-censorship campaigners had believed that October’s announcement was a full-scale victory for free speech. The regulator will be given the power to fine sites that fail to deal adequately with two types of content: illegal and “harmful”. In the case of illegal content, Ofcom will check that sites act quickly to take down content which is criminalised, from terrorist propaganda to child abuse imagery.

Harmful content is harder to define, because it refers to content that is legal to publish, but might breach sites’ own standards. There is a long list of content categories potentially considered harmful, including sexual, nude or erotic content, violent content, information related to self-harm or suicide, and of course, the ethereal and ever-expanding category of “hate speech”.

Deciding what is harmful is very much a subjective decision, and will vary from site to site. Readers might remember the hilarity that ensued when – encouraged by the government – many ISPs rolled out parental control filters in 2013. The filters blocked all sorts of sites that did not appear to be in any way harmful, from the Liberal Democrats’ LGBT site to this blog. I still often receive messages complaining that Sex & Censorship is inaccessible from some places. This eventually mattered little, as most broadband customers simply switched their filters off anyway.

While Facebook may have the resources to police its user-generated content, most sites do not. Any site that accepts comments (for example, this one, as well as most news services), or hosts a forum, will likely be covered by the legislation. It is unclear, in any detail, who might be affected, and how. But one things is certain: Ofcom censorship of the Internet is set to become a reality.

Just as with the now-defunct Porn Block, we are at risk of being bounced into disproportionate and draconian action based on poorly-defined ‘harms’ and moral panics. Although it is easy to be swept up by carefully-orchestrated panics over hate speech, self-harm, bullying and other important issues, it is important that we do not allow the state to use these concerns to encroach on free speech.

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BREAKING: Ofcom Signals Switch to Stronger TV and Streaming Censorship in Leaked Email

Yesterday, Ofcom circulated a confidential email to broadcasters signalling its intention to increase the strength of its censorship regime. This has been provided anonymously to Sex & Censorship, and is published in the public interest.

Ofcom is better known as the UK’s media and communications regulator, but it is also the UK’s media censor. It is hugely powerful and well funded, formed by the merger of multiple earlier regulators covering various sectors of TV and radio. It has always applied ludicrously stringent censorship, often driven by compaints from a handful of individuals, and it throws out huge fines for the smallest of infringements. Its power began to be eroded by the rise of the internet, broadband, and streaming services, but it has long signalled that it intends to extend it remit over all forms of communication.

Ofcom not only censors the British media, but actually writes its own censorship policy – surely something that should be done by government with parliamentary oversight, rather than an unelected body. British (small-L) liberals have long worried about Ofcom’s power. David Cameron, possibly the most liberal of all Tory leaders, signalled his intention to drastically reduce Ofcom’s power before the 2010 election. Presumably, his wrist was slapped by the establishment, and his pledge was never heard of again.

Yesterday’s email reads as follows:

From: Ofcom Standards Team <OfcomStandardsTeam@ofcom.org.uk>
Sent: 18 November 2019
Subject: Note to Broadcasters – Daytime chat and adult chat television services

Classification: CONFIDENTIAL

Dear Licensee

We would like to draw your attention to the Note to Broadcasters featured in Issue 391 of Ofcom’s Broadcast and On Demand Bulletin which was published today.

The note reminds broadcasters of daytime chat and adult chat services of Ofcom’s guidance in this area and puts these broadcasters on notice that it will be commencing a targeted monitoring exercise of these services. [my highlight]

Yours sincerely

Standards and Audience Protection team

The linked document is worth reading, because it gives an insight into the tight level of monitoring to which broadcasters are subject. Ofcom has the power to levy fines of hundreds of thousands of pounds, without recourse to the courts. For smaller broadcasters (and streaming companies), these would be impossible to bear. Broadcasters have no option but to tightly self-censor, or be put out of business.

As an afterthought, consider in this context the Labour Party’s recently announced plans for a state-owned, free broadband service. It is unimaginable that the government-run broadband service would allow this to function like a normal ISP that allows full access to the internet, including sexual material or open discussion of difficult issues related to race, sexuality or gender. Given the Tories’ recent attempts to censor the internet, I am deeply distrustful of both major parties with regard to civil liberties, and am keeping my fingers crossed for a hung Parliament.

Ofcom

Ofcom’s Internet Power Grab is Finally Underway

Yesterday, the UK government released the result of its consultation into (yet again) protecting children from online pornography. Predictably, the finding was that children DO need even more protection, and so Ofcom must be granted additional powers to censor online content.

This process has been so long and treacle-slow that it’s been clear for many years where it is leading. Stripping away the various convoluted steps that brought us here, one simple fact has always been obvious: Ofcom and the government were always going to act against a free Internet which undermined their powerful censorship controls over the mass media, and especially over sexual content.

So what will the new law – the Digital Economy Bill – say? It cements and the significantly extends the existing AVMS regulations which have been in place since 2010. So, as before, adult video-on-demand sites based in the UK are required to verify the ages of their visitors before revealing adult content to them. Failure to do so can (as before) result in a fine of up to £250,000. This regulation is the reason the UK adult industry has been decimated in the past few years.

Here’s the new stuff:

  1. The law no longer applies to “TV-like” video-on-demand services, but to all content, including still photography. This will close the loophole which a handful of websites have used to evade the regulations.
  2. Apps are to be included as well as websites.
  3. Ofcom will put pressure on payment companies as well as “advertising companies, web hosting services and others” to ensure that “the business models and profits of companies that do not comply with the new regulations can be undermined”. This enables Ofcom to target overseas content that breaches UK regulations.

Note the vagueness in this last point: this could easily include, in future, requiring ISPs to block services. So here is the law that I’ve warned of for some years: one that will allow Ofcom to manage – and close – our digital borders. The great firewall of Britain is coming.

Unless I’ve missed it, I can’t find any definition of “porn” in the report. The consultation hinted that soft content – non-explicit nudity and erotica – may be included, at Ofcom’s discretion.

It’s Not About Porn

Here’s a point I’ve made repeatedly. In my book Porn Panic!, I argue that the war on porn has been merely a symptom of a deeper intolerance to free speech that has long been rising in British society. Ofcom will not, of course, stop at targeting commercial porn sites, or even all sexual content. The British state considers myriad forms of content to be unsuitable for under-18s, and will now grant itself the powers to deal with it.

Brexit

And finally, a note on Brexit. It is likely that “undermining” (i.e. blocking or forcing to close) a legal, EU-based adult service would breach EU trade regulations. Sadly, should we leave the EU (as looks likely), we lose any legal recourse against this rising state censorship. Here, as in so many other ways, the EU has protected the British people against the excesses of our own government. Just as we will lose the free movement of people across borders, so we are beginning to lose the free transmission of information across borders.

Pornographer Pandora Blake Wins Battle, but Free Speech is Losing the War

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.

Queen's Speech Promises State Censorship

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”.

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.

Podcast #4: Response to Government Consultation

There’s no interview this week. Instead, our response to a government consultation on “protecting children”, which is, we believe, an attempt to push more power to Ofcom to be able to censor online content. The consultation closes on 12th April.

Ofcom

From ATVOD to Ofcom: Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire

The recent transfer of Internet censorship powers from ATVOD to Ofcom has been trumpeted as a victory for free expression. It is anything but.

In 2009, the then opposition leader, David Cameron (who, we might remember, used to show vaguely liberal leanings), made a radical pledge: to break up the mighty super-regulator, Ofcom.  As reported by the Guardian, he said:

“With a Conservative government, Ofcom as we know it will cease to exist. Its remit will be restricted to its narrow technical and enforcement roles. It will no longer play a role in making policy. And the policy-making functions it has today will be transferred back fully to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.”

This was a very important pledge. Ofcom, a large organisation with an annual budget running into the hundreds of millions of pounds, also writes and enforces policy, particularly in the field of television censorship: something that, as Cameron had noticed, is surely the role of government rather than an unelected regulator.

Of course, once the coalition was elected in 2010, this pledge was never heard of again. Ofcom remained intact, and is alive and well to this day. Furthermore, as of 1st January this year, video-on-demand censorship powers were transferred from ATVOD to Ofcom.

When the demise of ATVOD was reported last year, there was much jubilation, especially among small UK porn producers. As probably the original anti-ATVOD campaigner (having been in some way involved with the new VoD regulations since 2007), I too did a little dance on ATVOD’s grave. ATVOD’s CEO, Pete Johnson, had proven to be an obsessive anti-porn activist, and he turned his organisation’s ‘regulatory activity’ into little more than a witch-hunt of British porn publishers.

But some of those involved trumpeted this move as some kind of victory for free expression. Anyone with experience of Ofcom would never make such a mistake. It is a grave threat to online free speech.

Ofcom is a typical New Labour creation: iron-fisted authoritarianism wrapped in a velvet glove of diversity and other fluffy things. Formed by merging multiple regulators into one monolith, it was granted powers of control over our daily lives. Its rules for television are moralistic and wide-ranging, and almost never challenged by our elected representatives. The 2009 version of David Cameron deserves at least a little kudos for even mentioning the problem.

Ofcom’s attitudes to pornography on TV make ATVOD’s prudish rules for VoD seem positively libertine. While online rules allow hardcore porn – at least up to the BBFC’s R18 standard – Ofcom totally banned all explicit sex acts from TV. This applies even to PIN-protected adult channels broadcasting at 3am. In the name of child protection, British adults are banned from watching porn on TV: almost all other EU countries and the ‘prudish’ US allow hardcore porn to be broadcast – many in the middle of the day.

But even the BBFC’s 18 standard for soft porn is too much for the moralists at Ofcom, who have created their own, even softer standard of decency, which is prudish to the point of comedy.

Empowered by the Broadcast Act (2003), Ofcom doesn’t just write law: it is judge, jury and executioner. Tiny breaches of its code can result in fines of tens of thousands of pounds – in fact, it can impose fines of up to £250,000. And it also has the power to order TV channels to close, and even to ban companies from operating TV channels.

Playboy TV, for example, fell foul of Ofcom rules numerous times. Having been fined £25,000 in 2004, it was fined £22,500 in 2008 for broadcasting content that ‘included sequences depicting masturbation, oral sex (both between women and between men and women), clear labial detail, sexual intercourse, and full nudity. Some also included strong language, such as “fuck” and its derivatives and “cunt”, in an overtly sexual context.’

Yes folks, a massive, unelected, publicly-funded organisation issues huge fines to porn businesses that allow adults to see ‘clear labial detail’, on an encrypted TV channel in the middle of the night.

With the convergence of TV and the Internet, Ofcom was always going to make a grab for Internet censorship powers. The closure of ATVOD may have made us all smile, but it fits in with Ofcom’s strategic interests. In fact, ATVOD only existed for temporary convenience, the result of a pretence at co-regulation between government and industry (ATVOD was once a genuine trade association, but was hijacked and turned into a censorship body in 2010).

The current consultation on further Internet censorship powers for Ofcom is ominous indeed. It is clearly an exercise in box-checking before the government inevitably decides that the UK, alone in the democratic world, needs more Internet censorship to protect our under-18s (and purely by accident, protect adults too) from sexual expression. There is little chance that the old, liberal Cameron will leap to our rescue. Internet censorship is on the short-term agenda: the transfer of power from ATVOD to Ofcom was not a victory for free speech, but a signal that state censorship of the Internet is getting serious.

Queen's Speech Promises State Censorship

ALERT: UK Government Consultation on Further Anti-Porn Law

When attacks on civil liberties are announced by governments, they are usually sold under the guise of “tackling terrorism” or “protecting children”. Today, we have an example of the latter.

The UK government today announced the start of a consultation on protecting children from the insidious effects of online pornography. This might seem a little like Groundhog Day to many observers, who have repeatedly seen British porn laws and regulations added and extended over the years, always to “protect children”.

So, it turns out, all of the previous exercises in child protection weren’t enough. Now we need yet more action, since (unsurprisingly) companies based outside of the UK are ignoring our regulations. Since the UK is the only country in the world to implement such a ludicrously large raft of anti-porn laws, this is hardly surprising.

The latest proposals are to implement a new law that can be used to attack those naughty foreign porn sites that ignore the UK’s (pointless) age verification regulations (in other words, all the porn sites in the world). The planned means of attack will to cut off UK revenue streams to porn services, via pressure on services such as payment providers and advertising companies. It is not made clear whether hosting companies or ISPs will also be targeted.

The government document is deeply dishonest in its presentation of evidence that porn is harmful, for at least one good reason: as far as we know, it isn’t. Even the government’s own research suggests that porn access is broadly beneficial to society, rather than harmful. The document ignores this basic fact with skill, and even reprises the discredited ‘research’ from the NSPCC that this campaign challenged last year.

According to research (Kendall), porn use among 15-19 year olds is responsible for a decline in rape among that age-group; yet this is the very group to which the government seeks to switch off access (the government considers everyone under 18 to be a ‘child’ when it comes to pornography).

The document also claims that only 100 sites constitute 77% of UK porn traffic; yet it fails to make the obvious point that if these 100 were somehow blocked, users would move to other sites. So the regulator would have to target another 100, then another 100, and so on. In fact, there are many millions of porn sites (not to mention millions of others that are not pornographic, but which the UK government considers unsuitable for children anyway).

Sex & Censorship will, of course, be submitting a response to this consultation, and begin a campaign of public education to demonstrate how dishonest – not to mention dangerous – this government’s anti-porn campaigns are. We call on supporters to also submit your own responses.

Readers are also asked to consider donating to this campaign – even just a few pounds/euros/dollars can help – to support our work. Think of it as an investment to protect your right to watch free porn.

ATVOD Has Closed. Now What?

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.

Queen's Speech Promises State Censorship

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.

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?