Why the UK Porn Block is an Awful Idea

From 15 July 2019, the UK’s age verification system for online pornography will become mandatory. Here’s why it’s a terrible idea.

  1. It actually doesn’t block much porn at all. It only applies to commercial porn, which you need a credit card to access anyway, and children generally don’t have credit cards. It doesn’t apply to porn on social media, free sites, or P2P sharing, which is much easier to access.
  2. It will likely do more harm than good. It may provide many parents with a false sense of security that their children can no longer access porn online, resulting in a lower emphasis being placed on parents properly managing their childrens’ internet access. Parental controls on home wifi, home computers, and mobile devices are widely available and relatively easy to use.
  3. It plays into the hands of the big commercial porn providers. The main age verification system (AgeID) is owned by the same company that runs the most popular and lucrative porn websites in the world. The largest porn company in the world is being tasked with controlling access to porn. Already, some smaller businesses in the realms of ethical porn and feminist porn have shut down because implementation of this system is too expensive for them. If we’re going to have porn on the internet (and who are we kidding, there will always be porn on the internet), do we want it controlled by one big US firm?
  4. It has serious privacy implications. The age verification systems will contain the personal information and erotica browsing history for every adult who’s ever wished to access online porn from July onwards. If (or more realistically, when) this database is breached, it will be a treasure trove for identity thieves and blackmailers.
  5. It just won’t work. Technologically, it’s easy to bypass the system. Because it only applies to the UK, a simple VPN to break out to a different country will easily and cheaply circumvent most controls. At the same time, as has been seen in China, India and other authoritarian regions, consumers simply switch to other channels, such as torrenting, social media, newsgroups (yes, they’re still a thing), and the dark web.
  6. It’s based on flawed evidence. Whilst there’s anecdotal evidence that children “stumble across” online porn, there’s very little evidence that they access commercial porn sites, particularly when parents make some effort to manage internet access. The main study cited as the catalyst for the Act “found” that “almost a tenth of all 12- to 13-year-olds thought they were “addicted” to pornography”, and was carried out by OnePoll, the same people who generate such hard-hitting research as “German men are the world’s worst lovers” and “Fifty percent of British adults think Mount Everest is in the UK“. There is evidence that children access porn online, and some evidence that it’s harmful, and some that it isn’t as harmful as you’d think. Whichever way it’s cut, this age-verification approach is not evidence-based.
  7. It’s censorship and control. It provides a mechanism for the government to monitor online activity and decide what content is acceptable or unacceptable for the population to access, and change this definition as they see fit. The terms in the act even include the ability to block “material other than the offending material”. We may trust today’s government (though do you, really?), but we’d be foolish to implicitly trust future governments not to extend the controls to other content. As the award-winning English lawyer Myles Jackman put it, “Pornography is the canary in the coal mine of free speech: it is the first freedom to die. If this assault on liberty is allowed to go unchallenged, other freedoms will fall as a consequence.”

Technologically, this approach is fundamentally flawed, is unlikely to work at all, and creates some worrying implications for digital identity and privacy in the hands of large US corporations.

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