El Reg deep dive: Everything you need to know about UK.gov's pr0n block

Some foreplay: Dark web, smut monopolies and moral outrage

Archetypal hacker in a hoodie (is this how we all must surf pron from now on?)
Is this how we'll all surf smut from now on?

Remember last night when you went online to order pizza and stumbled across those two people humping each others' brains out?

No? Us neither. But it seems we've all dodged a bullet because the Brit government is still worried. So worried, it is introducing age checks on online adult content to prevent kids accidentally surfing across porn.

In a textbook example of the "something must be done" effect, the government was spurred into action after the NPSCC published work that suggested kids were traumatised by online porn, and given unrealistic expectations of the act.

In response, anyone who wants to go beyond a "shop window" page – which might show a lady in a bikini at best/worst (delete as appropriate) – will have to prove they're over 18.

The plan was put on the statute books as part of the government's large and multifaceted Digital Economy Act, which was rushed through Parliament in the legislative panic before Theresa May's ill-fated snap election last year.

"I don't know that they [the government] fully comprehend the privacy concerns of most citizens," said XHamster veep Alex Hawkins. "Purchasing or viewing adult content isn't the same as buying alcohol or going to a rated movie. For many people – teachers, priests, doctors, to name a few – having your name on a list of adult consumers has real implications."

It was due to be rolled out next month, but just as it was about to climax, the government hit pause. It had become clear that the newly appointed regulator wasn't going to be able to produce the necessary guidance in time.

That guidance is due to land any day now, and observers are hoping – with a healthy dose of scepticism – that it addresses their concerns.

Although it's highly unlikely the government will pull out entirely, the delay has been welcomed as a victory by free speech campaigners and indie pornographers, who have been against the plans from the start.

Laying the ground rules

So why has the proposal caused such a stir? On the face of it, the government's reasoning is sound – after all, there are age limits for video and on-demand porn*.

The quick answer is that – despite what lawmakers would like to believe – it's not a simple case of taking offline laws and applying them online. There are no end of technical and societal issues thrown up by asking people to submit personal details to third parties on the internet.

Hourglass on its side

Age checks for UK pr0n site visitors on ice as regulator cobbles together some guidance

READ MORE

Data breaches, bad security practices, the dark web, online tracking and manipulation, the nanny state – to name a few. Then add in monopolisation of the porn industry, limits on freedom of expression, and scepticism over whether this will even solve the problem.

Policymakers have made a difficult situation harder by failing to engage with critics and frustrated businesses with a lack of clear guidance.

"The more I learn about the way the government is handling this, the less confident I feel," said sex blogger Girl on the Net, who writes (NSFW) anonymously to protect family and former partners.

"The industry has been crying out for more guidance and clarification on how exactly age verification is going to work, and been given very little to go on."

The knock-on effect of a lack of engagement is that many feel the government has decided on a policy direction without proper balancing.

"I am not confident that the government is taking security and privacy concerns seriously," Girl On The Net said. "I think that – as is so often the case when we're encouraged to 'think of the children' – they have given almost no weight to the rights of adults to access legal adult material."

Her concerns were echoed by all the porn providers The Register spoke to, from XHamster – the 40th most-popular site in the UK, with 1.5 million UK users a month – to Barcelona-based Erika Lust, who had about half a million UK views in 2017.

"I don't know that they [the government] fully comprehend the privacy concerns of most citizens," said XHamster veep Alex Hawkins. "Purchasing or viewing adult content isn't the same as buying alcohol or going to a rated movie. For many people – teachers, priests, doctors, to name a few – having your name on a list of adult consumers has real implications."




Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2018