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Will size be the only thing that matters if the UK porn block is implemented?

Written by Eric Johansson on Monday, 15 July 2019. Posted in Regulation, Legal

Small independent pornography producers fear the porn block will lead to a market where only big players can thrive

Will size be the only thing that matters if the UK porn block is implemented?

Girl on the Net was launched in 2011. “Initially the sex blog came about because I wanted to share my thoughts on sex – and some of my hotter stories – and I felt like an anonymous blog was the best way to go about it,” remembers the blogger who prefers to stay anonymous. Since then it’s become her main income. “[The] ads on the site itself, books I’ve written off the back of it, Patreon support for my audio erotica, freelance consulting [and] writing for sex toy companies who found me through the blog, SexPots podcast which I do because of the blog too – every penny,” she says. 

However, the government plans to introduce a so-called porn block to force commercial erotic creators like Girl on the Net to hide their sites behind age verification software or face the risk of huge fines and being blocked within the UK. This poses a very real risk to these SMEs’ bottom line. “I’d be able to hold on to some of this, probably, if the block went through, but not all of it – I wouldn’t be able to pay my mortgage any more,” fears Girl on the Net. 

And this trepidation is palpable within the industry. “[At] the UK sex blogging conference Eroticon, held in March this year, there was a lot of discussion and worry from sex bloggers, adult performers, sex educators and more about when the law might start being enforced and how that may affect their work,” Girl on the Net remembers. “There are many people who are starting to self-censor out of fear that they may be blocked. It’s a huge deal, especially for those of us who rely on the income we make from our websites in order to pay our bills.”

The porn block was supposed to be implemented on Monday July 15. However, it’s been postponed for a third time due to an apparent administrative booboo. “I’m absolutely delighted and I think the fact that it keeps getting delayed demonstrates just how terrible an idea it is and how poorly it has been planned,” Girl on the Net states. While this may give erotic creatives some breathing space, detractors worry the porn block may still hurt small independent producers, restrict freedom of speech and, ultimately, won’t restrict children’s ability to access adult content – its raison d’etre. “It’s one of those ‘sounds nice in theory, is terrible and dangerous in practice’ things and I hope that the latest delay signals a much longer kick into the long grass before the UK government essentially abandons the idea,” she continues. 

The push towards the porn block can be tracked back to the Cameron–Clegg coalition’s commitment in their 2010 manifesto to “protect children from excessive commercialisation and premature sexualisation.” The first tangible result of this was that UK internet service providers (ISP) introduced filters in 2013 to protect children. Unless the users actively opted out, they couldn’t access content relating to subjects such as dating, self-harm as well as pornography. 

An unforseen consequence was that sites without harmful content were also blocked. This included over 400 websites of UK charities, schools and social support organisations – including sites offering support for mental health, addiction and survivors of sexual assault and domestic abuse – as well as several sites in the LGBT community, according to an April 2019 report from virtual private network (VPN) review platform Top10VPN and digital rights organisation Open Rights Group. Moreover, over 3,300 small businesses and religious groups were affected. Builders, drainage companies, wedding services and photographers had all been blocked by at least one ISP. There are now concerns similar unwanted effects will happen due to the new porn block. 

This iteration was first made public in the Conservatives’ 2015 manifesto. It was added after the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) published a report saying that a tenth of 12 to 13-year-olds fear being “addicted” to pornography and a fifth had seen pornographic images that had shocked or upset them. Once the Tories got to power, they set out to prevent this from happening. The result was the Digital Economy Act 2017 which introduced the demand for online commercial pornography providers to put age verification systems in place.

The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) will be responsible for ensuring compliance with the new laws. Any site which the regulator cannot reasonably believe consists of less than a third of adult content would have to introduce age checks or risk fines of up to £250,000 or 5% of that person’s qualifying turnover, whichever is greater.  

The age checks were initially supposed to be implemented by April 2018 but were delayed, first to Easter 2019 and then to the most recent July date. But now it’s been put on hold for at least six months. The secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport Jeremy Wright blamed it on an administrative error wherein the government had forgotten to inform the European Commission about the upcoming legislative changes, which it was legally bound to do.

Despite the delay, smaller producers are worried what it will mean for them. “I am definitely cautious and carefully consider possible options in case the block is implemented,” confesses Girl on the Net. For instance, the law is only applicable for commercial porn sites. “So if the government do decide to block my site I could simply strip all advertising [and] affiliation and then I would be free from the block, which is ridiculous when you think about it and demonstrates that the law doesn’t really prevent young people from seeing my content, it only prevents them from seeing my content if I happen to make money from it,” she continues. 

A second option she’s considering is posting more non-pornographic content. “I have always mixed erotica in with plenty of other content on relationships, mental health, feminism and other stuff,” Girl on the Net says. “[I] think I am fairly close to having enough extra content that the law won’t apply to me there either. So that’s another potential avenue.”

Another concern is the cost of implementing age verification software. “The large free tube sites which most people visit for porn already dominate the market and encouraging people to pay for their porn is no mean feat,” argues Girl on the Net. “If they also have to pay money to verify the age of all their users, that’s another slice of their potential income gone.” 

Although, the price for age verification services can differ. For instance, Telecom2’s VeriMe is free to users – except for whatever text message costs their phone provider has in place – but costs 12p per verification for the website. Others, like Yoti and AVSecure, offer solutions that are free for everyone. That being said, AVSecure’s physical porn passes that can be bought by retailers will cost £10. “Nowadays, I don’t believe there are commercial barriers to implementing age gates,” argues Alastair Graham, chair of the Age Verification Providers Association and CEO of AgeChecked.

And there are plenty of other options available as tech-savvy entrepreneurs have gathered en masse to launch their own age verification startups. One of them is AgeChecked, launched after Graham noticed his nephew watching age-inappropriate videos on YouTube. “It [made me] question why there was no age gate in place,” Graham remembers. “It didn’t make sense that we were protecting young children offline but doing [so little] online.” So he set out to do something about it as did several other founders with similar ideas. 

The entrepreneurs venturing into this area have one huge challenge to tackle – how to keep people’s private data safe. David Kaye, a special rapporteur from the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, highlighted this issue to the UK government back in 2017. He was particularly concerned about users having to verify their identities before accessing adult content, which could risk limiting their right to access information anonymously, and expressed concerns about how the government and private actors would store and protect private data. 

Given how companies like dating platform Ashley Madison have been hacked in the past and had users’ private information released to the public, sex community Killing Kittens’ founder Emma Sayle believes “the massive privacy and GDPR headache involved with the new legislation” is understandable. “Who is handling all this personal information?” she asks. “Where exactly is all that information being stored? The invasion of privacy is huge and surely that has hackers written all over it.”  

However, Graham isn’t worried where his startup is concerned. “As an independent age verification provider, AgeChecked never stores personal information on its users and credentials are completely anonymised – so no data is created,” says Graham. “Nor, by extension, can it be passed on. In this respect, it’s vital that age verification is performed by independent age verification systems and not by the adult sites themselves or organisations affiliated with them.”

But the safety of the data isn’t the only concern independent creators have – they’re also worried about the risk of the pornography industry becoming a place where only big players can thrive. This is best exemplified by AgeID. At a first glance, it could seem just like any other age verification portal. However, AgeID is owned by MindGeek, the owner of the web’s biggest porn site PornHub as well as sites like YouPorn and RedTube. For a sense of how massive MindGeek is, one spokesperson told Irish Independent that it’s one of “the top five bandwidth consumption companies in the world.”

Speaking of why MindGeek created AgeID James Clark, director of communications at AgeID, says: “Being the leaders in our industry comes with a social responsibility and we have created a product with data minimisation, security and privacy at its core.”

Essentially, AgeID would work like this: people would have to create a username and a password before accessing a pornographic site. Once created, the user would get to choose between different third-party age verification services to provide evidence of their identity to. This evidence could be an SMS, credit card, passport, driving licence or a PortesCard, which is a physical porn pass. Once completed, users would be able to roam freely around the different websites using AgeID’s services without having to re-enter the username. AgeID won’t charge UK porn companies for its services but international ones will either have to pay for AgeID’s service or find an alternative method of verification for its UK viewers.

While MindGeek points out there are other similar services out there, “With large companies like this in charge of age verification across popular sites, smaller competitors that don’t follow suit face an uphill struggle to get people to sign up to an different verification service all over again,” argues Daniel Pryor, head of programmes at the Adam Smith Institute, the free market think tank. 

While MindGeek has stated AgeID will be separate from the the rest of the business, Pryor fears that if the company changes its “mind it could force harsher terms on smaller UK pornography producers and hurt their profits, ultimately leading to a market dominated entirely by large porn producers.” “This may seem like a minority concern but porn has been behind some of the key innovations in the internet – closed captions, online payments, the file types we use for digital videos,” he claims. “Their demise would leave the porn industry a worse place for viewers and performers and curtail the technological improvements that spill over into the rest of the economy.”

Critics have also raised concerns that small producers will be disproportionately affected. “Users are not going to want to verify their age just to see a glimpse of what we offer – it is not good e-commerce practice,” Erika Lust, an adult filmmaker with several sites operating in the UK, told the Financial Times

Pushing the argument to the extreme, this could risk the closure of small studios creating niche pornography depicting things like BDSM and other fetishes. And some even believe that’s the entire point of this legislation. “When it comes to pornography, [the government is] more acceptable to vanilla, male and female straight sex than they are to niche fancies like BDSM or spanking,” claims Charlotte Rose, a sex worker activist, professional dominatrix, sexual trainer and Sex Worker of the Year 2013

She has reason for her scepticism. Back in December 2014, Rose led a face-sitting protest outside of Westminster after the government made an amendment to the 2003 Communications Act. The result was a list of activities being banned from being filmed by British producers, many of which were common within the BDSM community. The list included spanking, aggressive whipping, physical or verbal abuse, female ejaculation, fisting and face-sitting.

After years of campaigning, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) relaxed the rules in January 2019. Now these acts are permitted as long as everyone depicted is over the age of 18, it’s consensual, no serious harm is caused and the production isn’t linked to any criminal activities. “It is not for the CPS to decide what is considered good taste or objectionable,” the CPS said in a statement. 

Despite the victory for small independent niche porn producers, Rose and people like her believe the new porn block could lead to more censorship. “This is a canary in the coal mine,” argues Rose. “What they are doing right now has nothing to do with pornography. It’s the perfect opportunity to create a nanny state like they’ve already done in South Korea.” The Asian country has been introducing similar filters preventing people from accessing pornography since 2009. 

Of course, that’s only if people actually don’t try to skirt the UK law, which they could easily do by using a VPN, enabling users to seem like they’re browsing from another country. They could also use the TOR browser. Both solutions have been used for years to access blocked sites like The Pirate Bay and circumvent the IPS blocks implemented by Conservative and LibDem government. 

However, Graham retorts that this is missing the point. “The BBFC’s regulations are designed to stop young children stumbling across adult content,” he states. “Their assessment is using a VPN to circumvent an age-gate is beyond ‘stumbling behaviour’. Therefore, VPNs are currently outside the scope of the regulation.”

Which leads us to the reason why the block was implemented to begin with – protecting minors from smut. “There is no real hard evidence to state that children watching pornography go on to be murderers or anything like that,” argues Rose. However, it would be more accurate to say that existing research is inconclusive at best. For instance, one article written by researchers at West Chester University of Pennsylvania, Duquesne University and University of California reviewed the science papers on the topic published between 2005 and 2012. The researchers found indications watching porn would make teenagers more prone to engage in sexual experimentations at an earlier age and instil a bigger pervasiveness to sexual acts. They also found that adolescents watching adult content could have self-image issues when they compared themselves with what they saw in the pornos. The results, however, weren’t always replicable. 

The Children’s Commissioner for England reached a similar conclusion when it reviewed 276 research papers about pornography and its effect on kids. “We do not know what effect viewing violent images has on children and young people,” the report stated, adding that while there was seemingly a correlation between risky behaviour and watching porn, there was no way to say whether that was because of porn or the children’s cultural context in general. “We cannot infer causality,” the report said. 

One oft-quoted solution is to amplify the sexual education British children get. As it is now, UK sex education rarely covers online media and sexuality, gender roles, sexual orientation, mutual sexual consent, sexual violence and abuse, domestic violence or human rights and sexuality, according to research by the Federal Centre for Health Education and the International Planned Parenthood Federation European Network. And that’s the problem, according to Sayle. “Until the dialogue and education is changed regarding porn, until the dialogue stops putting the responsibility onto girls thus excusing boys’ behaviour and actually begins to teach boys about consent, boundaries and how porn is not the real world, then no amount of legislation will help or change the narrative of reality,” she argues. 

While the porn block has been halted for now, it’s clear opinions about it differ to say the least. 

About the Author

Eric Johansson

As web editor and resident Viking, Johansson ensures EB is filled with engaging and eclectic entrepreneurial stories. While one of our most prolific tech writers, he has sharpened his editorial teeth by writing about entertainment and fitness. Follow him on Twitter at @EricJohanssonLJ to catch up with his stream of consciousness.

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