As expected the Government has officially announced that Mobile and fixed line broadband providers in the United Kingdom will soon be forced into the mandatory blocking of all “adult” websites; specifically those that fail to offer an adequate method of age-verification for their visitors.
The new approach, which was first hinted at last month after Claire Perry MP tabled several directly related amendments (here), will be officially introduced as part of a change to the forthcoming Digital Economy Bill 2016-17.
However the idea itself has been on the table since last year (here), which is partly because the Government need a solution to help stop the EU’s new Net Neutrality rules from effectively banning network-level blocking systems (here); these are used by ISPs to censor websites, both voluntarily or following a court-order.
At present all of the biggest fixed line broadband ISPs and Mobile operators have already adopted a voluntary approach to blocking adult sites (Parental Controls), which gives new and existing subscribers a choice about whether or not to enable such censorship on their connection. But even the toughest of these systems will still provide account owners with the option to disable such blocks, yet this flexibility may soon be removed.
Under the new approach the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) will be given powers to make Internet Service Providers (ISP) restrict access to pornographic sites that fail to put “tough age verification measures” in place to protect children.
Karen Bradley, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, said:
“The Government is committed to keeping children safe from harmful pornographic content online and that is exactly what we are doing.
Only adults should be allowed to view such content and we have appointed a regulator, BBFC, to make sure the right age checks are in place to make that happen. If sites refuse to comply, they should be blocked.”
Apparently the requirement to block such “rogue sites” would apply to all websites in the United Kingdom and overseas. Where websites originate in the EU the process will be “compatible with country of origin rules“, which is interesting because some EU states are a lot less puritanical than the UK has recently become.
In terms of pornographic websites, the Government claims that the top 50 sites account for 70% of users and “many“, including the largest free site by market share, have already agreed with the government to implement age verification. The bill also introduces a new power that forces payment services (e.g. VISA, Mastercard) to withdraw support from non-compliant sites.
As ever there are plenty of concerns with the new approach, not least the question of how you actually make ‘Age Verification‘ work without forcing people to share their private personal and or financial details with unreliable porn peddlers, and possibly the Government too. The infamous Ashley Madison hack showed just how dangerous such information can be in the wrong hands (following in its wake were multiple cases of blackmail and suicide etc.).
Naturally the Government focuses all of its energy on the word “pornographic“, while the legislation itself tends to prefer the much less specific “adult content” (i.e. open to interpretation and mission creep). We’ve seen in the past how dating websites, as well as sites that support victims of self-harm, social networks, sites that express different political views and medical sites can often end up being blocked because they are deemed to contain “adult content“.
Jim Killock, Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, said:
“This could lead to tens of thousands of websites being blocked, despite their content being perfectly legal.
In no way should this proposal be legislated for in this bill. There has been no thought or consultation, and the government has not even begun to define how blocking might be attempted.
They have no idea if it would work well or badly, or whether there is serious enough harm to justify such a massive restriction on UK adults access to legal material.
We do however know that over 90% of parents manage their children’s activities online, according to OFCOM, and that 70% of households do not have children.”
The cost of implementing such a system isn’t such an issue for the bigger ISPs, but smaller providers could struggle (network-level filtering isn’t a cheap or easy thing to implement). A number of providers may be able to get around this because they already require customers to be over the age of 18, although this will depend upon how the final legislation is worded.
On top of that there will be questions about what happens if a website is wrongfully blocked. Plus we must not forget that most adults, usually those without children, don’t want to censor legal adult websites (here) and indeed a large proportion of adults do access porn online (here).
Finally, anybody who wants to find and access such material will easily be able to circumvent such blocks, such as via a proxy server or VPN. Lest we not forget Google’s image search, which displays naughty content unless ‘Safe Search‘ is enabled (will Google be blocked too?). All of these circumvention methods are easy to use and you can bet the last pound in your pocket that children above a certain age will know more about this than the rest of us.
UPDATE 24th Nov 2016
The proposed amendment to support the above change has now been tabled for the Digital Economy Bill (here).