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ID checks for porn: Is the U.K. infringing privacy or protecting children?

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Photo via Keith Byers/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

It’s complicated.

This is how Mistress Megara Furie, a U.K. porn producer who was accused of violating U.K. law on minors accessing adult content, described it: 

After I read the part which said I had made content available to minors, I had a panic attack. I was sick to my stomach at the thought of someone underage having access to my clips. I instantly saw my name on the sex offenders register, me writing to my family from prison.

She was investigated last year under Rule 11 of the Audio Visual Media Service Regulations, which state that if a website contains “material which might seriously impair the physical, mental or moral development of persons under the age of eighteen, the material must be made available in a manner which secures that such persons will not normally see or hear it.”

The U.K. government isn’t satisfied that this requirement is currently being met by all adult websites, and has just launched a two-month-long consultation (exploratory committee) on how best to prevent minors from accessing porn online. The government states: “We committed in our manifesto to requiring age verification for access to pornographic material online, and are now seeking views on how we deliver on our commitment.”

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A photo posted by Glasgow Mistress Megara Furie (@mistressglasgow) on

The news raises some major questions: Is there any way to control what people see on the Internet without invading privacy, and—especially in cases like Megara Furie’s—when does “think of the children!” become a pretext for censorship?

Dr. Paul Bernal, a U.K. lecturer specializing in information technology, intellectual property, and media law, emailed the Daily Dot highlighting the practical problems with the proposals:

The [government] do not appear to have a real idea how to achieve the ‘robust age verification’ system they’re talking about, and there’s a good reason for that: it’s really difficult!

Asking all porn site users to enter credit card details—as is already standard with U.K. gambling sites—is not as simple as it sounds. First, as the Daily Dot reported in 2014, the majority of porn websites are free to use and require no sign-ups or financial information. Second, not all adult porn users may have credit cards, and those that do are likely to be reluctant to share that information with a porn site. No one wants their porn use to show up on their credit card statements (especially if you have a joint bank account); plus the risk of hacking, as the Ashley Madison scandal showed, or credit card fraud (teens “borrowing” their parents’ cards is hardly unthinkable) is likely to be a major turn-off for users.

Those tech-savvy enough to get around ID-verification software are most likely to be in or near the very age group the government is seeking to protect. 

The other option would be to verify names and addresses via the electoral register, a government record of all adults living in the U.K. However, Bernal describes this approach as “incomplete and inappropriate”: Adults have the right to opt out of the “open” version of the register, of which any company can buy a copy (this author always opts out to avoid reams of junk mail). The full version of the register can only be viewed by police in criminal investigations, local and national government for electoral purposes, and for credit checks by banks and loan companies. Porn sites don’t fall under any of those usages, so the U.K. government would either have to rewrite the law on how the electoral register can be used, or accept that it could only verify the ID of those unconcerned enough with privacy to feature on the open register.

Bernal adds:

All other currently imaginable technological solutions (e.g. biometric ones) are either deeply privacy invasive or highly expensive to implement. Imagine requiring an iPhone-style fingerprint system in all devices used to access the websites. No provider will want to limit their market so significantly, and no tech company is likely to want to be so directly associated with porn access. And the tech won’t be foolproof (or hack-proof) anyway.

Furthermore, those tech-savvy enough to get around ID-verification software are most likely to be in or near the very age group the government is seeking to protect: young people. Several critics have also pointed out that the vast majority of porn viewed in the U.K. is also hosted abroad, severely limiting the remit of U.K. authorities to force websites to comply. Although interestingly, U.S.-based Pornhub has already said it is willing to comply with any guidelines the U.K. government sets down.

This new attempt to keep porn away from young eyes seems like a tacit admission that the U.K. government’s previous policy of automatic porn filters at the Internet Service Provider level has not been effective. In 2013, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that adult content filters would be switched on as standard for all new customers by the end of the year, meaning customers had to “opt in” and tell their provider that they wanted the filters switched off. Yet by 2015, two of the U.K.’s four major ISPs still had not adopted this measure, which may explain why the government has turned to tackling the issue at the website level.

Critics of these filters, including Bernal, point out that they result in inaccurate “over-blocking,” whereby non-pornographic sites that discuss sex education or LGBT issues end up censored, disadvantaging teens who are seeking useful information. Indeed, this author’s own blog (which contains no images and mostly consists of theoretical discussions around gender and sexuality), regularly gets blocked by U.K. “family” filters.

The U.S. has no equivalent law to what the U.K. is proposing, probably because any attempts to do so have inevitably fallen foul of the First Amendment. The Child Online Protection Act (COPA) of 1998 required all distributors of “material harmful to minors” to restrict their sites from minor access, but was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2009.

Many feel the U.S.’s lack of regulation is the preferable option. In an email to the Daily Dot, Shira Tarrant, academic and author of forthcoming book The Pornography Industry: What Everyone Needs to Know, wrote:

Trying to block or filter porn is simply a form of denial. That approach does not have a good track record when it comes to social issues, and that includes pornography… A more constructive strategy is to foster positive conversation about the issues in order to help build children’s resilience to pornography. This means, for example, including a focus on gender issues and pornography [as part of] the sex education curriculum.

Tarrant’s book unpacks an important part of the issue—is the panic over children viewing porn exaggerated or misplaced? Conclusive proof that viewing porn actually “harms the physical, mental or moral development of under-18s” (in the words of the law) is very difficult to obtain. A 2011 report  by the U.K.’s own telecommunications regulator, OfCom—the body responsible for regulating mature content online as well as on TV and DVD—says “research does not provide conclusive evidence that [adult] material might seriously impair minors’ development.” The report adds that none of the 20 other European countries consulted in the report could find evidence for this either. A 2013 study by the U.K.’s Middlesex University also “could not establish a causal relationship between pornography use among underage viewers and risky sexual behavior such as unprotected sex, use of alcohol or drugs in sex, and having sex at younger ages.”

“EU research has found absolutely no evidence that… online porn harms the development of children.” 

Perhaps most revealingly, the same study states that “dissatisfied with the sex education they are receiving… [teens] are increasingly drawing on pornography, expecting it to educate and give information.” It’s not hard to find the link between this and the fact that the U.K. government’s overzealous family-filter policy often blocks informative sex education websites; so, far from protecting minors from porn, the U.K. government could actually be pushing children toward it.

Experiences like that of Mistress Megara Furie imply that, in the absence of conclusive evidence about porn harming children, there is a subjective and moral agenda at work in U.K. law. In 2015, U.K.-based porn producers Furie and Pandora Blake were both investigated under reformed AVMS guidelines—their stories are told fully in this previous Daily Dot article—for both the content of their websites (Rule 14 of AVMS), and because there were apparently insufficient controls in place to stop minors accessing them (Rule 11). 

Blake wrote in an email to the Daily Dot that Rule 11 was little more than pretext to go after porn sites that the censors themselves personally disliked: “[The censors] use excuses like ‘protecting children’ and ‘reducing harm’ to seize control, despite the fact that EU research has found absolutely no evidence that… online porn harms the development of children.”

Both Blake and Megara Furie opted to shut down their Web-based businesses rather than try to take on the well-funded and powerful censors (although Blake is still awaiting the outcome of an appeal); Furie concluded:

there has to be a spin put on any bold move to ensure compliance and support and in this case the spin was ‘think of the children’. I do believe there is a level of protective intentions but unless they go after tube sites and start placing some onus on parents to protect their own children from over-18 content. . .then I am still fairly skeptical.

The U.K. government’s consultation runs until April 16.

Photo via Keith Byers/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Catherine Scott

Catherine Scott

Catherine Scott is the author of 'Thinking King: The Collusion of BDSM, Feminism and Popular Culture.' Scott's work has been published in the Telegraph, the Guardian, Ms. Magazine, and Salon.