October 18, 2016 | Jim Killock

A database of the UK's porn habits. What could possibly go wrong?

The Government wants people who view pornography to show that they are over 18, via Age Verification systems. This is aimed at reducing the likelihood of children accessing inappropriate content.


To this end the Digital Economy Bill creates a regulator that will seek to  ensure that adult content websites will verify the age of users, or face monetary penalties, or in the case of overseas sites, ask payment providers such as VISA to refuse to process UK payments for non-compliant providers.

There are obvious problems with this, which we detail elsewhere.

However, the worst risks are worth going into in some detail, not least from the perspective of the Bill Committee who want the Age Verification system to succeed.

As David Austen, from the BBFC, who will likely become the Age Verification Regulator said:

Privacy is one of the most important things to get right in relation to this regime. As a regulator, we are not interested in identity at all. The only thing that we are interested in is age, and the only thing that a porn website should be interested in is age. The simple question that should be returned to the pornographic website or app is, “Is this person 18 or over?” The answer should be either yes or no. No other personal details are necessary.

However, the Age Verification Regulator has no duties in relation to the Age Verification systems. They will make sites verify age, or issue penalties, but they are given no duty to protect people’s privacy, security or defend against cyber security risks that may emerge from the Age Verification systems themselves.

David Austen’s expectations are unfortunately entirely out of his hands.

Instead, the government appears to assume that Data Protection law will be adequate to deal with the privacy and security risks. Meanwhile, the market will provide the tools.

The market has a plethora of possible means to solve this problem. Some involve vast data trawls through Facebook and social media. Others plan to link people’s identity across web services and will provide way to profile people’s porn viewing habits. Still others attempt to piggyback upon payment providers and risk confusing their defences against fraud. Many appear to encourage people to submit sensitive information to services that the users, and the regulator, will have little or no understanding of.

And yet with all the risks that these solutions pose, all of these solutions may be entirely data protection compliant. This is because data protection allows people to share pretty much whatever they agree to share, on the basis that they are free to make agreements with whoever they wish, by providing ‘consent’.

In other words: Data protection law is simply not designed to govern situations where the user is forced to agree to the use of highly intrusive tools against themselves.

What makes this proposal more dangerous is that the incentives for the industry are poor and lead in the wrong direction. They have no desire for large costs, but would benefit vastly from acquiring user data.

If the government wants to have Age Verification in place, it must mandate a system that increases the privacy and safety of end users, since the users will be compelled to use Age Verification tools. Also, any and all Age Verification solutions must not make Britain’s cybersecurity worse overall, e.g. by building databases of the nation’s porn-surfing habits which might later appear on Wikileaks.

The Digital Economy Bill’s impact on privacy of users should, in human rights law, be properly spelled out (“in accordance with the law”) and be designed to minimise the impacts on people (necessary and proportionate). Thus failure to provide protections places the entire system under threat of potential legal challenges.

User data in these systems will be especially sensitive, being linked to private sexual preferences and potentially impacting particularly badly on sexual minorities if it goes wrong, through data breaches or simple chilling effects. This data is regarded as particularly sensitive in law.

Government, in fact has at its hands a system called Verify which could provide age-verification  in a privacy friendly manner. The Government ought to be explaining why the high standards of its own Verify system are not being applied to Age Verification, or indeed, why the government is not prepared to use its own systems to minimise the impacts.

As with web filtering, there is no evidence that Age Verification will prevent an even slightly determined teenager from accessing pornography, nor reduce demand for it among young people. The Government appears to be looking for an easy fix to a complex social problem. The Internet has given young people unprecedented access to adult content but it’s education rather than tech solutions that are most likely to address problems arising from this. Serious questions about the efficacy and therefore proportionality of this measure remain.

However, legislating for the Age Verification problem to be “solved” without any specific regulation for any private sector operator who wants to “help” is simply to throw the privacy of the UK’s adult population to the mercy of the porn industry. With this mind, we have drafted an amendment to introduce the duties necessary to minimise the privacy impacts which could also reduce if not remove the free expression harms to adults.

 

Comments (14)

  1. ToraxMalu:
    Oct 18, 2016 at 08:15 PM

    Ehm - I only want to remind you British about the Weimar Republic: The police enlisted all homosexual men on „pink lists“. Then the Nazis (oh, I know as German, how you love them…) came along and didn't had any work to do. The police made all the work for them. The brown shit only had to follow up the list and collect all gays… Would say, your politicians didn't learned from history!

  2. Guest123:
    Oct 18, 2016 at 08:26 PM

    In case, the above example with the gay people is like "I don't care, I'm not gay". The Nederlands hat "religion" in its person records. It was very easy for the Nazis to find all Jews. Fortunately a gay man blew up the record keeping office.

  3. Graham Marsden:
    Oct 18, 2016 at 08:52 PM

    I'm sorry, but is ORG *really* suggesting that the Government's Verify system is a suitable option?

    I'm sure Theresa May would love to extend the State's ability to snoop on people by recording their porn browsing habits...

  4. jochen:
    Oct 19, 2016 at 03:52 AM

    What could possibly go wrong?

  5. VeryPrivate:
    Oct 19, 2016 at 12:01 PM

    This looks like a plan to create a nation of VPN/proxy/Dark net experts.

    Anyway, after your identity is verified and you have whatever unique ID is issued (whatever form it's in)... isn't it in your interests to share it as widely as possible, thereby invalidating the whole scheme?

    Once shared, it doesn't even have to be used by anyone else... it just *could* be.

    What's the betting that thousands of IDs will be online within days of any misconceived plan being realised.

  6. hahaquadratic:
    Oct 19, 2016 at 08:02 PM

    So I have no problems with porn, but there are certainly great societal benefits to controlling its access. And I am a little tired of the weak "privacy" protection arguments that repeatedly get rolled out in relation to porn and any attempts to control its access.

    The argument presented in this post is based on the assumption that protection of the privacy and data collection for porn users actually exists. However, this type of privacy most definitely does not exist. Cookies that scrape data and browsing histories, IP addresses of the computers connecting, and various other identifying pieces of information are already regularly collected on porn sites, through google analytic's pervasive data collection, and many many other means, with little to no concern for the users, and with no legal consequence for the site owner's responsible protection of this data. The Ashley Madison incident is a great example of exactly this this fact.

    In addition, there is an assumption in this post that a database must be maintained that records a connection between a person's identity and the pages he/she has chosen to view. When in fact the age verification can happen at a portal level, and so a direct relationship between all of the videos watched and the identity of the viewer does not need to be shared at all. It simply would only need to require that a porn provider actually verify age for anyone before they are allowed into their "hub".

    Porn hub and some of the other big providers have vast collections that would support the desires of an LGBT community member just as well as a Hetero. And since there is no requirement to maintain a direct link between actual views, this means even the protections of the LGBT community is also not an issue. In addition, wouldn't rule of law actually require a legally justifiable reason to use such information from the porn provider and the ID regulator And since having LGBT preferences are not actually illegal in England, what exactly is the concern again in this area, compared to other sites that are collecting this information??

    This post also makes an assumption that your activities on a porn site are somehow more protected than say your activities on a personal shopping site for example, or a banking site in which consumers routinely enter personal identifying information. Especially since the banking industry already uses commercial identity manager systems regularly. Nor does it answer why someone should have more privacy rights online than they would if they were attempting to purchase porn in a store, where they would in fact be required to show proof of their age.

    True children will find ways to still access porn if they really want to. But they do this with alcohol and cigarettes as well, and yet regulation of these substances are, without a doubt, still beneficial

  7. Chris:
    Oct 19, 2016 at 08:17 PM

    This assumes that there's an appetite to spend the money on "doing it right". Given that the only people who would benefit would be porn-watchers, the government would find it very easy not to care.

  8. Redfellow:
    Oct 19, 2016 at 09:13 PM

    @Chris

    Almost everyone watches porn. OK, not old people, but basically everyone below the age of 40.

    Even most women watch porn.

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2507752/Over-half-women-regularly-watch-porn-daring-40-admit-making-own.html

    I bet even most MPs watch porn. It's as common a habit as drinking.

    Theresa May is going to lose a hell of a lot of support when everyone goes online one night only to discover they can't access their favourite websites :p

    Why you think the net was born? Porn, porn porn.

  9. Graham Marsden:
    Oct 20, 2016 at 10:02 AM

    @hahaquadratic

    So what are these "societal benefits" of censorship? How do we all gain from the State telling us what we can or cannot see?

    And the privacy you mention *does* exist. I run NoScript to stop google analytics, Ublock ad blocker, BeefTaco advertising cookie blocker, RefControl and other software in my browser, plus I can run private browsing mode if I want, and there's nothing to stop anyone else doing this, in fact more and more people are doing so.

    If things get worse, I'll start using a VPN for my browsing because my privacy is important to me.

    When you say PornHub can supply what people need, you miss the point that it is the niche producers of material who will end up being penalised because they, quite rightly, want to monetise the content they provide, not see all their traffic (and income) go to the big companies.

    Your argument that because LGBT isn't illegal, people shouldn't mind having to give out private information is just laughable. Firstly there is still widespread bigotry out there and, secondly and more importantly, it is NOBODY ELSE's business what your, my or anyone's preferences are and the idea that we should have to ask permission and approval to browse adult material is ridiculous.

    As for your comment about having to prove your age in a sex shop, neither I, nor the State are responsible for controlling what your children do, if you want to stop them browsing this stuff, install software to block access.

    And finally, despite repeated claims by anti-porn campaigners, there is NO evidence that porn causes harm, especially not when children get proper sex education, such as happens in The Netherlands.

    Parents need to TAKE RESPONSIBILITY for their offspring instead of expecting others to do it for them and let adults make up their own minds what they do or do not see instead of the Nanny State and Big Brother trying to do it for them.

  10. Marine:
    Oct 20, 2016 at 12:55 PM

    Scientific papers show, that the amount of sexual violence ist HIGHER in the ABSENCE of available pornography. That shows clearly, that this is not to protect someone but to enforce the inhibited and prude minds of politicians to the people. No danger of coming censoring, "inappropiate" means censoring, nothing else.

    + Openrightsgroup, uh? How far is with our rights, if we are forced to use Javascript/Google Captcha and thereby expose our information to Google/NSA?

  11. hahaquadratic:
    Oct 22, 2016 at 02:10 AM

    @Graham Marsden:
    1st, what censorship? The state is not telling you what you can or cannot see. It is upholding a regulation that says those under 18 cannot see the content. You can see what ever porn content your heart desires, once you prove you are 18.

    2nd, the state has in fact taken on similar responsibilities in the protection of children (or others). Other examples include age requirements for driving licenses, alcohol, and cigarettes. The reason for this, is the impact of these controlled substances on children has been deemed detrimental enough, and also that their availability is at a scale that cannot be managed simply by household/parental controls that government has in fact stepped in.

    3rd, even if you have ad blockers, etc. on, this does not stop a site from know your IP when you connect to it; and this piece of information is easily traced back to you, and yes those porn sites can and are storing (and selling) information about their users.

    4, of course there is bigotry, misogyny, racism, etc. But my point was, is there is a very weak argument that by choosing to uphold the regulation of 18+ for viewing porn that the state will now start incarcerating individuals for watching porn, etc. because of LGBT preferences.

    5. And as I pointed out, this is a particularly weak argument since this data would already be available in so many other forms, that should someone want to discriminate against someone with LGBT preferences (or other areas) then that data is already available

    6. I am sure whatever niche markets you are expressing great concern for will find a way to bring their goods to market, if the demand is there. And seriously, are you really trying to pull the heart strings for the poor-little niche market porn suppliers? That is funny though

  12. Graham Marsden:
    Oct 24, 2016 at 09:55 AM

    @hahaquadratic

    1) "You can see what ever porn content your heart desires,"

    Wrong. It will only be State Approved (by the BBFC) porn. This was one of the major points of the protest since they will only approve sites which show material that they would class R18.

    This means that sites that show acts such as fisting and female ejacualtion which are legal to participate in will be blocked.

    That is censorship. Full stop.

    2) There is a fundamental difference between the real world and the web. The Government is trying to blur this to control what we're allowed to see.

    There is also a fundamental difference between things that do physical damage such as poisons (alcohol) and addictive substances such as nicotine and images featuring consenting adults.

    I recommend again that you look at the Netherlands and see how their Sex and Relationship education teaches children what they need to know about sex and pornography and relationships and their commensurate lower levels of teenage pregnancy.

    3) Have you never heard of a Virtual Private Network?

    I can see a huge increase in usage of these in the near future.

    4) The weak argument is yours that, because LGBT is legal, people shouldn't mind the State snooping on them.

    5) "It's already happening, so the State should be allowed to do it too" is another ridiculously weak argument for the invasion of people's privacy.

    6) Are you really saying that the Rights of people who have niche interests should be trampled on by the State simply because they're "little people"?

    Either you support the Rights of *everyone* or you end up with the Tories' desire to remove the HRA and say "You can have the rights we approve of, providing you are someone we like".

    There are already too many regimes in this world who have that attitude, do you want us to join that ignominious list?

  13. John:
    Nov 06, 2016 at 10:25 AM

    We are talking here about children who have found ways around every parental control that has ever been invented & laughed at the isp block . When we get to the stage of the government thought police burning people at the stake for watching a none government approved funny cat video , children will still watch porn if they so wish . If one child finds a way around the block , word will spread from one side of the school to the other faster than the flue virus . And as a backup there are literally hundreds of millions of pirate copies of porn dvds on the loose in this country

  14. John:
    Nov 06, 2016 at 10:43 AM

    A couple of years ago David Cameron commissioned a think tank report on children watching porn on the internet & what could be done about it ( from memory I think the conclusion was on page 28) .Theresa , like David has chosen to ignore this report & it's conclusion . I don't know who is advising her , but didn't she notice that he was wearing a clown outfit & being accompanied by me in white coats ?



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