Tag Archives: ofcom

Queen's Speech Promises State Censorship

Alert: New ATVOD Anti-Porn Censorship Law to Arrive 1st December

On 1st December a new law governing online porn will come into force in the UK. This is known as the Audiovisual Media Services Regulations 2014, and amends the 2003 Communications Act.

The law applies to VoD services regulated by ATVOD, and imposes restrictions on the types of content that can be legally sold by UK VoD providers.

There has been much confusion over what this law means: this post is an attempt to provide some clarity.

Effects on Consumers

There are no (direct) implications for porn consumers. The law affects UK-based providers only. Consumers are still at liberty to access any online porn they want, and will only be affected if their favourite British website happens to be censored by the new law. Of course, existing laws (like the 2008 “extreme porn law”) still apply. However, see further implications below.

Effects on Providers

The new law only affects providers of On Demand Programme Services (ODPS) that are regulated by ATVOD. ATVOD’s power comes from the EU AVMS regulations, which relate only to “TV-like” services. In most European countries, most websites (including adult websites) are not considered to be TV-like. However, in the UK, ATVOD has chosen to apply the regulations far more broadly, and encompass a wide range of services, including adult sites. This gives ATVOD the power to regulate, and control, any website it decides is TV-like.

Note that ATVOD has repeatedly been struck down by Ofcom regarding its broad definition of TV-like. The Sun newspaper, the BBC, and a number of others, have successfully appealed that various services cannot be considered TV-like, and so have escaped regulation by ATVOD. Recently, a dominatrix also appealed that her site, Urban Chick Supremacy Cell (NSFW), was not TV-like, and won. Sites that have removed themselves from ATVOD regulation in this way are not bound by the new law.

What Does the Law Change?

The new law puts a restriction on the strength of porn that can be sold on regulated services. Previously, any pornographic content that did not breach existing content laws (for example “obscene” material, and child abuse imagery) could be sold. Now, only content equivalent to the BBFC’s R18 rating can be sold: this brings VoD services into line with DVD.

R18 is a strange thing: it is a set of weird and arbitrary censorship rules decided between the BBFC, the police and the CPS. There appear to be no rational explanations for most of the R18 rules – they are simply a set of moral judgements designed by people who have struggled endlessly to stop the British people from watching pornography.

In practise, this means that video of various fetish activities can no longer be sold by regulated UK services – the people most affected will be those running fetish sites of various types. This may explain ATVOD’s apparent obsession with chasing down dommes who sell their own videos: most femdom sites would now be illegal to run in the UK (at least, if they are “TV-like”).

The list of rules governing R18 is long and often vague, but they include:

  • Urination in various sexual contexts is banned, as is female ejaculation
  • Spanking, caning and whipping beyond a gentle level are not allowed
  • “Life-endangering activities” such as strangulation and facesitting cannot be carried out
  • Fisting is banned (if all knuckles are inserted), as are other large insertions
  • Bound and gagged models may not be featured, as there needs to be a clear way in which the model can withdraw consent

Why Has This Been Done?

The introduction of the R18 standard into law is essentially a way to circumvent European standards. The EU’s AVMS directive specifies that content that “might seriously impair minors” should be restricted so that under-18s cannot normally  view it. However, this is a test to be answered by psychologists, not government censors. The UK media regulator Ofcom looked at the results of research by 20 European governments, and stated: “No country found evidence that sexually explicit material harms minors”.

This is inconvenient for a government that wants an excuse to censor pornography, regardless of any evidence of harm. Introducing the R18 test removes the need for objective evidence, and instead allows censors to make arbitrary decisions.

Although the law is introduced under the pretext of “protecting children”, it actually affects adults and children alike.

Implications

In practise, very few people are directly affected: most businesses selling strong fetish material online left the UK years ago for other European countries or the United States (the well-known fetish site kink.com (NSFW) is run by a Briton who moved to San Francisco to escape our ludicrously censorious climate).

However, this law was clearly introduced to further ATVOD’s plans to restrict what sexual content can be accessed by UK citizens, and will doubtless be used to justify further censorship in various forms. ATVOD have long wanted to stop banks from processing payments for services that don’t meet their tight regulations, and have tried (and failed so far) to introduce licensing of non-UK sites. Watch this space for more news at it emerges (please join our mailing list for updates).

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News Site “UK Column” Removes All Videos After Brush with ATVOD

Few people in the UK are yet aware that for the past few years, the huge media regulator (and censor) Ofcom has had the power to regulate online video services. The EU’s Audio Visual Media Services Directive (AVMS) was intended to extend broadcast regulation to online TV catch-up services. In this country, Ofcom was tasked with implementing the directive, and promptly outsourced the job to a private organisation, ATVOD.

The regulations were originally expected to apply only to services such as 4oD and the BBC’s iPlayer; but ATVOD had different ideas, taking a far broader view of what constituted a “TV-like” service. ATVOD’s first move was to effectively wipe out the UK porn industry overnight by insisting British porn sites verify the age of all visitors before allowing them to see any naughty bits: a requirement so onerous that no site could possibly hope to implement it and stay in business (ATVOD claims the support of the “responsible” adult industry, but this in fact consists of TV and DVD companies who are delighted to see their online competitors closed down).

In the interest of full disclosure, mine was one of many businesses affected, and I closed my company in 2012. Playboy moved its core operations from London to Canada (losing UK jobs and tax revenues), and many smaller sites were simply forced to shut down. But the new regulation poses a threat far beyond the right to operate a porn site. All websites deemed TV-like by ATVOD are forced to pay the regulator a fee, and then become liable for implementing rules designed for large broadcast corporations. Breaching these complex rules can mean the site’s operator receives a penalty of up to £250,000.

Suddenly, individuals running video websites, or even YouTube channels, must conform to the same rules as the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Sky. The corrosive effect on free speech is potentially catastrophic. And this week, the threat proved to be more than theoretical.

The campaigning website UK Column, which reports on corruption within the British establishment, decided to remove all of its video content after being deemed an “on-demand programme service” by ATVOD. The site’s co-editor Brian Gerrish said: “This represents an immediate and dangerous attack on free speech on the internet and should be of massive concern to all Youtube users, as the government seems to be moving to censor individuals directly, putting them on the same regulatory footing as global corporations like the BBC and CNN. As a government agency, ATVOD’s clearly flawed working practices and their alignment to the corporate media pose a direct threat to our personal liberty and freedoms.”

For 20 years, the Internet has threatened the power of the state and corporations to set the message. Ordinary citizens have become publishers of blogs, podcasts and videos. In Britain, this era of unprecedented free speech has now come to an abrupt end. The British state has signalled its intolerance for citizen broadcasters.

Pornography is the canary in the coalmine: it is the playing field upon which censors can hone their methods before turning their gaze elsewhere. The British press, from the Guardian to the Mail, and the political class from Labour to Conservative, has almost universally allowed the Porn Panic to proceed without question. And yet censorship powers developed for one reason can easily be reused elsewhere. This week’s events are a wake-up call to those who had not yet noticed that British democracy is in an increasingly weakened state. Free speech is in undeniable decline. This is no longer about the right to watch pornography: it is about whether Britain is losing the freedoms that are so fundamental a part of this country’s history.