How could the power to block pornographic websites lead to massive censorship, when the BBFC thinks it wants want to censor “just” a few hundred sites.
Officials wrote to the New Statesman yesterday to complain about Myles Jackman’s characterisation of the Digital Economy Bill as leading to an attempt to classify everything on the Internet. (They perhaps hadn’t understood the satire.)
However, the fact of the matter is that the DE Bill gives the BBFC (the regulator, TBC) the power to block any pornographic website that doesn’t use age verification tools. It can even block websites that publish pornography that doesn’t fit their guidelines of taste and acceptability - which are significantly narrower than what is legal, and certainly narrower than what is viewed as acceptable by US websites.
A single video of “watersports” or whipping produces marks, for instance, would be enough for the BBFC to ban a website for every UK adult.
The question is, how many sites does the regulator want to block, and how many can it block?
Parliament has been told that the regulator wants to block just a few, major websites, maybe 50 or 100, as an “incentive” to implement age checks. However, that’s not what Clause 23 says. The “Age-verification regulator’s power to direct internet service providers to block access to material” just says that any site that fits the criteria can be blocked by an administrative request.
What could possibly go wrong?
Imagine, not implausibly, that some time after the Act is in operation, one of the MPs who pushed for this power goes and sees how it is working. This MP tries a few searches, and finds to their surprise that it is still possible to find websites that are neither asking for age checks nor blocked.
While the first page or two of results under the new policy would find major porn sites that are checking, or else are blocked, the results on page three and four would lead to sites that have the same kinds of material available to anyone.
In short, what happens when MPs realise this policy is nearly useless?
They will, of course, ask for more to be done. You could write the Daily Mail headlines months in advance: BBFC lets kids watch porn.
MPs will ask why the BBFC isn’t blocking more websites. The answer will come back that it would be possible, with more funding, to classify and block more sites, with the powers the BBFC has been given already. While individual review of millions of sites would be very expensive, maybe it is worth paying for the first five or ten thousand sites to be checked. (And if that doesn’t work, why not use machines to produce the lists?)
And then, it is just a matter of putting more cash the way of the BBFC and they can block more and more sites, to “make the Internet safe”.
That’s the point we are making. The power in the Digital Economy Bill given to the BBFC will create a mechanism to block literally millions of websites; the only real restraint is the amount of cash that MPs are willing to pour into the organisation.
What could possibly go wrong?