The government’s proposal for age verification to access pornograpy is running out of control. MPs have worked out that attempts to verify adult’s ages won’t stop children from accessing other pornographic websites: so their proposed answer is to start censoring these websites.
That’s right: in order to make age verification technologies “work”, some MPs want to block completely legal content from access by every UK citizen. It would have a massive impact on the free expression of adults across the UK. The impact for sexual minorities would be particularly severe.
This only serves to illustrate the problems with the AV proposal. Age verification was always likely to be accompanied by calls to block “non-compliant” overseas websites, and also to be extended to more and more categories of “unsuitable” material.
We have to draw a line. Child protection is very important, but let’s try to place this policy in some context:
70% of UK households have no children
Take up of ISP filters is around 10-30% depending on ISP, so roughly in line with expectations and already restricting content in the majority of households with children (other measures may be restricting access in other cases).
Most adults access pornography, including a large proportion of women.
Less that 3% of children aged 9-12 are believed to have accessed inappropriate material
Pornography can and will be circulated by young people by email, portable media and private messaging systems
The most effective protective measures are likely to be to help young people understand and regulate their own behaviour through education, which the government refuses to make compulsory
MPs have to ask whether infringing on the right of the entire UK population to receive and impart legal material is a proportionate and effective response to the challenges they wish to address.
Censorship is an extreme response, that should be reserved for the very worst, most harmful kinds of unlawful material: it impacts not just the publisher, but the reader. Yet this is supposed to be a punishment targeted at the publishers, in order to persuade the sites to “comply”.
If website blocking was to be rolled out to enforce AV compliance, then the regulator would be forced to consider whether to block a handful of websites, and fail to “resolve” the accessibility of pornography, or else to try to censor thousands of websites, with the attendant administrative burden and increasing likelihood of errors.
You may ask: how likely is this to become law? Right now, Labour seem to be considering this approach as quite reasonable. If Labour did support these motions in a vote, together with a number of Conservative rebels, this amendment could easily be added to the Bill.
Another area where the Digital Economy Bill is running out of control is the measures to target services who “help” pornography publishers. The Bill tries to give duties to “ancillary services” such as card payment providers or advertising networks, to stop the services from making money from UK customers. However, the term is vague. They are defined as someone who:
provide[s], in the course of a business, services which enable or facilitate the making available of pornographic material or prohibited material on the internet by the [publisher]
Ancillary services could include website hosts, search engines, DNS services, web designers, hosted script libraries, furniture suppliers … this needs restriction just for the sake of some basic legal certainty.
Further problems are arising for services including Twitter, who operate on the assumption that adults can use them to circulate whatever they like, including pornography. It is unclear if or when they might be caught by the provisions. They are also potentially “ancillary providers” who could be forced to stop “supplying” their service to pornographers to UK customers. They might therefore be forced to block adult content accounts to UK adults, with or without age verification.
The underlying problem starts with the strategy to control access to widely used and legal content through legislative measures. This is not a sane way to proceed. It has and will lead to further calls for control and censorship as the first steps fail. More calls to “fix” the holes proceed, and the UK ends up on a ratchet of increasing control. Nothing quite works, so more fixes are needed. The measures get increasingly disproportionate.
Website blocking needs to be opposed, and kept out of the Bill.