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.


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16 thoughts on “The Queen’s Speech 2016: Online Censorship Now Official Policy

    1. If a service is blocked, VPN will work. But if it is age-verified, VPN won’t help. Nor will VPN help if a service loses its payment facilities

      1. but what if the site is using the age-verified for its UK site but not its US site? I could just use a VPN to access its US site, so a VPN will work in that case and also what if that service is using bitcoin or other payment like that? there so many flaws with AV that its hard to comprehend

        1. The UK regs are very strict in this respect. They don’t just relate to UK users, but to all users. So if a service only age-verifies its UK users, it will still fail to meet the rules. Thus, services must age-verify all their users, globally, to be UK-compliant

  1. “The Internet as we know it is going to change fundamentally”

    very unlikely unless they go full site blocking, if Pornhub and Youporn are no longer freely available people will move on to other sites that dont comply with the new law eg free sites that wont be effect at all, and what about Many other services that allow user-contributed content like Twitter/Periscope, Facebook and Tumblr and anything own by Google? at best they wont need to change anything cause Ofcom wont go after them because there powerful players and if Ofcom goes after them well let just say Ofcom and Gov are unlikely to win the court case that follows

    money talks and services like Google and co have alot of money

    also Gov may do a Uturn so that it only effects porn sites and not other services and sites after Google and co apply a bit of pressure on them 😉

    but yeah its a bit early we dont even know what in the bill yet or how its been worded or even how they are going to enforce it at all so let withhold judgement until we know more 🙂

    but the best we can do is fight this bill every step of the way

    1. Google has a lot of money but pays little UK tax. A hint at changing tax law could be enough to get them onside

    1. Yup – this is why they tend to talk in terms of BBFC certificates. The BBFC recognises 3 clear levels of porn: soft (18), hard legal (R18) and everything else, which is effectively banned in the UK

    1. I would have thought preventing minors from seeing inappropriate content online was the parents job. Preventing children from seeing porn site while not doing anything about the tube sites is not doing anything about the problem at all which begs an answer to the question whats the point of it all? Other dangerous things online is grooming but I dont see how age verification controls will do anything about that either.

      I fear the real danger with censorship is the government can prevent you seeing what it doesnt want you to see in order to influence the way you think like when it comes to issues like immigration, the referendum and any other thing it relies on its influence to get your vote

  2. I notice in the consultation document they are careful to define material that is created solely for sexual stimulation and they specifically state they have no interest in censoring depictions of violence. Later they place an emphasis on the “potential” harm caused by “unrealistic sex” warping children’s beliefs about what they think real sex is supposed to be. I wonder why they have never seen any “potential” harm or “perceived” risk in unrealistic depictions of violence in everything from old fashioned westerns to roadrunner cartoons giving kids a frivolous attitude towards gun toting and home made explosives? Maybe because potential harm and perceived risks are not actual harms and risks but simply assumptions based on prejudice and bias which are not supposed to play a part in evidence based policy.

    1. Yes, although they blur that elsewhere in the document by mentioning other forms of content unsuitable for children. Sorry, don’t have time to find the reference at the moment.

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