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MPs Consider Law Forcing All UK ISPs to Block Adult-Only Websites

Friday, October 28th, 2016 (9:45 am) - Score 1,685
banned from the internet cross

Ministers debating the new Digital Economy Bill 2016-17 are starting to discover what many already knew, that the proposals to add ‘Age Verification’ to pornographic websites may in practice be unworkable. Instead some of them want to impose a duty on all broadband ISPs to block “adult-only content” by default.

One of the biggest challenges with the ‘Age Verification‘ approach is with how you actually make it work, so that people can’t get around it simply by inputting fake details. As such most of the approaches being proposed would require people to share their private personal and or financial details with unreliable porn peddlers, and possibly the Government too, in order to gain access.

However the infamous Ashley Madison hacking affair showed just how dangerous such information can be in the wrong hands (following in its wake were countless cases of blackmail and suicide etc.), not that the more puritanical elements of the Government would care about a few dead people and blackmail getting in the way of a moral crusade.

On top of that the government would only be able to apply such rules to companies based in the United Kingdom, but since most porn sites operate outside of the country then additional measures might be required in order to tackle those and this is where we come back to website blocking.

At present all of the biggest fixed line broadband ISPs and mobile operators have already adopted a voluntary (Active Choice Plus) approach to network-level filtering, which gives new and existing subscribers a choice about whether or not to enable adult website blocking on their connection. Sky Broadband has also gone one step further and introduced a default-on approach like the mobile operators employ (here), but you can still turn it off later.

The trouble is that the EU’s new Net Neutrality rules warn that ISP imposed network-level blocking systems are “not consistent with the regulation” (here) and as such the Government has long been pondering a change of law in order to override the measures (here). In that sense it came as no surprise to find that MP Claire Perry is once again trying to push website blocking into the bill via three new clauses.

Claire Perry’s Proposed Clauses

New clause 8 – Duty to provide a service that excludes adult-only content

New clause 11 – Power to make regulations about blocking injunctions preventing access to locations on the internet

New clause 6 – Requirement to cease services to non-complying persons

The clauses do not, at this stage, appear to make any exception for smaller ISPs and that’s important because many of those might struggle to afford or implement such a system. But in fairness the proposals do still allow subscribers to disable the blocking by virtue of either being over the age of 18 or specifically opting-in to receive an unfiltered connection.

On the other hand there’s a big question mark over the proposal to block websites via a court injunction, which can apply purely for not being able to comply with the age-verification requirements. The courts should normally only be used against truly illegal content and until now porn has not been illegal.

Mind you the above assumes that the law would remain restricted to porn, but the proposal vaguely defines “adult-only content” as “material that contains offensive and harmful material from which persons under the age of 18 are protected“. We can see a lot of potential for injunctions.

MP Claire Perry said:

Clause 8

“This new clause places a statutory requirement on internet service providers to limit access to adult content by persons under 18. It would give Ofcom a role in determining the age verification scheme and how material should be filtered. It would ensure that ISPs were able to continue providing family friendly filtering once the net neutrality rules come into force in December 2016.”

Clause 11

“This new Clause empowers the Secretary of State to introduce regulations in relation to the granting of a backstop blocking injunction by a court. The injunction would require an internet service provider to prevent access to a site or sites which do not comply with the age-verification requirements. This would only be used where the other enforcement powers (principally fines) had not been effective in ensuring that sites put in place effective age-verification.”

Clause 6

“This new clause requires payment and ancillary services to block payments or cease services made to pornography websites that do not offer age-verification if they have received a notice of non-compliance under section 22(1). This provision would only apply to websites outside of the UK. This would enhance the enforcement mechanisms that are available under the Bill.”

At this point it’s important to remember that more than two thirds of UK households don’t have children, which roughly reflects the limited uptake of ISP based network-level blocking features (here). It’s also true that a large proportion of adults do access porn online (here), even though it’s one of those taboo subjects and so is not widely considered.

The other challenge is that no new age verification or blocking approach will actually work because 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. All of the circumvention methods are easy to use and you can bet the last pound in your pocket that the kids know more about it than the rest of us.

On the other hand it is a good thing that ISPs offers parents the option to enable such filtering, but it should perhaps never be enforced by default and mandating it through a law carries a big risk of unintended consequences or mission creep. It remains to be seen whether any of this makes it into the final law.

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Mark Jackson
By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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11 Responses
  1. Avatar Wise Old Owl

    Perry and the rest know fine well this is unworkable and the ease to circumvent makes it a costly and futile exercise, but they are more than happy to put the burden on ISP’s who in turn will charge the customer somewhere down the line for providing it.

    It’s window dressing by ignorant politicians at best. Does it protect children from adult porn? No it doesn’t.

    And as ISP Review point out – more than two thirds of households are child free but they can pay with the rest of them for the lack of parental control in the homes of those who do have kids.

    So the ISP industry do this, the kids are protected (or so they think) and in actual fact they are now seeing adult content while the parents sit back thinking, that’s okay my kids are safe because the ISP is blocking. Duh!

    Next stop one on one personal censor per kid – Over to you Clare Peril.

  2. Avatar john

    VPN on the router – job done.

  3. Avatar Steve Jones

    I don’t think what Berec has produced are regulations. They are surely guidelines, and don’t have force of law in any one country albeit local regulators might seek to impose them (or governments on their behalf if it needs primary legislation). It might also be that the EU does produce legally binding legislation, but I don’t think so.

    In any event, there’s an explicit allowance for complying with a “legal order”, and if Parliament chooses to pass a law which says that adult content must be filtered by consumer ISPs, then that (or any court order compelling them to comply) would surely count as a legal order.

    So perhaps I’m wrong, but I can’t see any way that if Parliament chose to pass an act with these provisions that it would be easily challenged in court, especially as this is simply an “opt out” and ultimately under consumer control.

    However, the action to try and force adult sites outside the jurisdiction of the UK to verify adult status it fraught with practical problems. However, there is a precedence in the US. The US banned much of Internet gambling and when international sites continued to offer the service, they did go after those who owned and operated the service. There was at least one well-publicised case where a Brit was arrested in the US, even though he was not there on related business. The US banking authorities have also levied fines against those clearing payments to those online gambling business.

  4. Avatar timeless

    this whole debate isnt about adult content to be honest.. its about parents who let their children have unfettered unsupervised access to the internet.. they treat it like a daycare then expect someone else to protect their children. lve walked down the street before and noticed amorous couples in broad daylight getting it on, and we all know that sadly that there are some elements out there much more sinister that are a threat to our children yet somehow its more important to protect our children online because parents are too lazy to keep an eye on their childs internet usage..

    but then what do we expect from a government which has no real clue not to mention doing everything to derail an enquiry into some of its members dirty dealings with the abuse enquiry, the third person that was put in charge has just left.

  5. Avatar dragoneast

    Victorian morality.

  6. Avatar Andrew Jones

    Can anyone explain what the point is?
    For adults that don’t have kids – it’s not protecting anyone, and for families with kids – is this suggesting that the adults should not be allowed to look at adult material? Surely the majority of adults will turn the protection off so they can look at what they want online? I wouldn’t be surprised if a very low percentage of families actually leave it enabled and the elderly, everyone else will probably turn it off. Making it an expensive exercise for ISPs which will no doubt raise the prices to consumers in order to pay for a system that we have basically managed without up until now?

    • Avatar timeless

      personally l believe there are ulterior motives, for me it all boils down to information… with more and more laws a bigger slice of our daily lives will be logged with these systems.

  7. Avatar cyclope

    It’s the responsibility of the parents not the state or ISP’s

    This on by default censorship is wrong the whole thing is nonsense

    Clair perry voted to remain in the EU surprise a leftard snowflake then

  8. Avatar Bob2002

    Practically every young person is going to have an Internet connected computer, at some point in life they will start using it without an adult looking over their shoulder.

    There are free VPNs, it is practically impossible to stop them viewing pornography if they are determined. I think the best option is proper education, but I’ll give my opinion of what proper education should entail.

    Campaigners are obsessed by pornography because of the supposed moral implications – but that’s not what pornography is actually about. Pornography viewing is akin to casual drug use, a number of components come into play, physical attractiveness, novelty, etc and these produce a dopamine high.

    In the old days of magazines there were limits to highs that could be achieved – limited novelty available. Now with the Internet there is unlimited novelty and highs
    available, this can lead to types of behaviour akin to typical drug use.

    Gary Wilson breaks down the behaviour associated with pornography viewing in this TED talk(think there is a longer presentation out there somewhere) –

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wSF82AwSDiU&list=PLE7069372B8ACFF3A

    So essentially I think it needs to be explained to young adults that pornography consumption is a type of casual drug use by another name, a dopamine high is no different to other highs and there are implications involved. If we can address the mechanics involved in pornography viewing – rather than make general moral pronouncements – I think young people will have a better understanding of what they’re dealing with and how to address it.

    • Avatar dragoneast

      I think that kids, from what I can remember – I was one once, a long time ago – take more notice of their peers than what the old fogies tell them. I worry more about the adults who don’t grow out of it than the kids for whom all this stuff is a transient phase.

      I’m just grateful that in my day we could explore anything, and we quickly discovered what was worth it and what wasn’t – a useful lesson we could then take with us through life. Try to hide anything, and it immediately becomes a must-have.

      There’s nothing wrong with excitement; just that porn, like every other drug, isn’t it. Excitement doesn’t come to us, we find it. Think about it, if we can.

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