The Porn Identity

Picture of Trekkie Monster from Avenue Q

An announcement slipped out today by the Government (no doubt hoping that the Brexit circus would distract everyone) confirms that the plans for compulsory age-verification checks for adult websites will not be going ahead. The plans had already slipped twice – originally planned to roll out in late 2018, it was postponed to July 2019, then was pushed back again to October due to incompetence. Now, Culture Minister Nicky Morgan has confirmed that the plans have been shelved (on the top shelf, presumably).

It does seem to be a universal rule that, as soon as something is invented, it will inevitably end up used for filthy sex stuff. Computers were no exception – I certainly remember the thrills some lads at primary school got from an illicitly-obtained copy of Sam Fox Strip Poker for the Commodore 64. The fact that none of us knew how to play poker hardly seemed to matter. The introduction of modems opened still more horizons – if you knew where to look, bulletin boards offered BBC Micro users a cornucopia (pornucopia?) of pixelated 8-bit erotica, as uncovered a few years ago by John Hoare (VERY NSFW LINK!).

Porn has been on the web for as long as the web has existed. In the olden days of dial-up, it was less of a problem, as postage stamp-sized RealPlayer windows playing at 5 frames per second did not offer much of a thrill. The content that was available was generally locked behind a paywall, requiring a credit card, beyond the means of most under 18s.

However, with the arrival of broadband, and the proliferation of free sites which offer (legally or not) hours of content completely free of charge, it has become a lot easier to find rude videos online. When I was at school, there was one lad at school who found one of his dad’s naughty magazines and brought it in for his mates to excitedly pore over. Now, with a smartphone in every pocket, everyone has instant access to stuff far more potent than a magazine, with no need to worry about the pages getting stuck together.

At this juncture, it needs to be stated, just in case there is any doubt: under 18s should not be looking at pornography. Sex advice columnist Dan Savage has a famous quote: “porn is to sex what Kabuki theatre is to everyday life” – that is, the sex you see in these videos is often an exaggerated and extreme form. It’s pretty terrifying that some kids are getting their sex education this way, rather than from well-structured PSHE lessons in schools (which are FINALLY being made compulsory in UK schools from next year).

So, given the above, why are the age-verification rules a bad idea? I can give you several reasons.

GIF of Alan Partridge saying "Can you make porn come on my telly please?"

There is the potential for a massive data breach. The core of the proposal was that anyone wanting to access adult content would have to prove their age, by providing an ID which can be checked (such as a passport or driving licence), entering credit card details, or buying a special “porn pass” from a newsagent. It was suggested that a few large companies could offer age verification (“AV”) services on behalf of all sites. You log your details with the AV provider, which then authorises you to access the website in question.

Because the AV provider has to log all these accesses, it would gradually build up a nice database of users’ porn habits, probably linked to personally identifiable data. That’s a juicy target for hackers – lax security could mean a scandal on the level of the Ashley Madison data breach, and people could suddenly find themselves being blackmailed, lest the world find out that Mr Happily Married Father of Three has been watching Council Estate Lads IV repeatedly.

It’s a phisher’s charter. People would get used to the idea of entering their credit card details to view adult content. So, some scammer drops an email into someone’s inbox, purporting to be from a mate: “lol check this sexy video out!” Gullible person clicks on the link, gets an “adult verification” popup and, BOOM! – your Visa card is suddenly buying luxury goods in Vietnam.

It won’t actually work. Currently, under UK law, all adult websites based in the UK have to have age-verification anyway. The new rules were aimed at overseas websites, which could have been blocked in the UK if they failed to comply, similar to the way film and music piracy websites are sometimes blocked by UK ISPs. But there are literally tens of thousands of porn websites – how could the BBFC (in its role as regulator) possibly block even a fraction of them, as new sites spring up every day? It would be a constant game of Whack-a-Mole. This would be even worse than no ban at all, as it may lull parents into a false sense of security.

It can be easily bypassed. Install a VPN and all of a sudden you can be in another country, as far as the Internet is concerned. Any website blocks are thus fairly easily circumvented.

It could disproportionately affect LGBT websites. There are plenty of examples recently of over-zealous censorship of fairly innocuous gay content. Internet filters brought in by ISPs have been censoring non-sexual LGBT content. YouTube has been criticised for demonetising LGBT-themed videos. Instagram is often thought to enforce its nudity guidelines more strictly against gay male images. Whether these incidents were cock-up or conspiracy, it’s not hard to imagine an over-zealous BBFC employee going beyond his remit and banning LGBT content.

So, I’m glad the plans have been ditched. That still leaves the question of what can be done to protect under 18s from pornography? I have some ideas…

First of all, as mentioned above, better sex and relationship education in schools, so kids get the facts about sex from responsible adults and not from the internet.

Secondly, parents need to take responsibility for what their kids are doing online. That means young children have NO unsupervised internet access at all, and are blocked from accessing social media until the right age. For example, Facebook is only available to ages 13 and over but routinely there are stories in the paper of under 13s getting on there, often with the blessing of parents, and seeing inappropriate stuff. For teenagers, supervising all access may not be feasible, but parents should certainly be in the habit of checking what’s on their phones and laptops occasionally.

Thirdly, tech companies need to make it easier to access parental controls. I have set up multiple iPhones and iPads for myself and other people. During the setup process, I get asked to set up Touch ID, Apple Pay and various other bits – but never have I been asked about setting up age restrictions, which are instead buried in the Settings menu. I remember a few Christmasses ago, helping my nephew to set up an XBox Live account – the process for creating a limited child account was so convoluted that we almost gave up.

A final note: the plans may not be entirely dead. There are many groups who lobbied hard for the age checks to be brought in, who are unlikely to take this lying down (unlike the people in the videos, am I right! – oh, never mind). The Daily Mail in particular ran a long-running campaign about this, and an angry leader column is no doubt being bashed out right now.

The statement from Nicky Morgan says that the goals of the Digital Economy Act will now be delivered through new regulation on “online harms”, so these plans could come back in the future, in a different form.

I recommend looking at the website of the Open Rights Group, who have been on top of this (fnarr) for some time now and will no doubt continue to keep an eye on things.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *