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UK Government Admits Internet Porn Ban Flawed – Continues Anyway

Friday, January 5th, 2018 (11:37 am) - Score 1,678
censored access internet

The Government’s Digital Minister, Matt Hancock, has quietly signed-off on a controversial impact assessment for the new Age Verification system, which underpins their plan to force all UK broadband ISPs into blocking websites that contain pornographic content (unless they use age verification).

Just to recap. The new Digital Economy Act 2017 (summary) will introduce an age-verification system for websites that contain pornographic content, which is due to be enforced from May 2018. Under this approach the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) will gain the power to force ISPs and mobile operators into blocking porn websites that fail to put “tough age verification measures” in place.

On the one hand many people welcome this approach as it will help to make the Internet a safer place for children, but on the other hand it overlooks the fact that masses of adults enjoy viewing porn and most UK households do not have young children. Similarly all of the major ISPs already offer network-level filtering (Parental Control) features and there are lots of free alternatives for those who prefer to use smaller ISPs.

Similarly more than a few people and organisations, including the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights (here), have warned that the Government’s approach could have some damaging consequences. Others have also suggested that it might force those who work in the adult industry into more dangerous situations (example).

Lest we forget that nobody knows quite how to make an Age Verification system that works, at least not without forcing people to share their private personal and or financial details with unreliable porn peddlers. The infamous ‘Ashley Madison‘ hack highlighted just how dangerous such information could be in the wrong hands (multiple cases of blackmail and suicide etc.).

Despite this Matt Hancock did, on 12th Dec 2017, sign-off on an earlier Impact Assessment for the new Age Verification Regulator (here), which included a rather chilling list of the potential risks involved. Many of these have been highlighted before and so well done to the Government for acknowledging them, even though they intend to continue regardless because “the benefits justify the costs“.

Risks Identified by the Impact Assessment

• Deterring adults from consuming content as a result of privacy/ fraud concerns linked to inputting ID data into sites and apps, also some adults may not be able to prove their age online;

• Development of alternative payment systems and technological work-arounds could mean porn providers do not comply with new law, and enforcement is impossible as they are based overseas, so the policy goal would not be achieved;

• The assumption that ISPs will comply with the direction of the regulator;

• Reputational risks including Government censorship, over-regulation, freedom of speech and freedom of expression.

• The potential for online fraud could raise significantly, as criminals adapt approaches in order to make use of false AV systems / spoof websites and access user data;

• The potential ability of children, particularly older children, to bypass age verification controls is a risk. However, whilst no system will be perfect, and alternative routes such as virtual private networks and peer-to-peer sharing of content may enable some under-18s to see this content, Ofcom research indicates that the numbers of children bypassing network level filters, for example, is very low (ca. 1%).

• Adults (and some children) may be pushed towards using ToR and related systems to avoid AV where they could be exposed to illegal and extreme material that they otherwise would never have come into contact with.

The Impact Assessment for all this also estimated that it will cost an average of around £4.5 million to fully setup the regulator and that “large” ISPs could each expect to incur costs of between £100,000 to £500,000 to update their systems and block non-compliant websites (assumes a block of up to 50 sites per year at “DNS level“). Obviously big ISPs can deal with such a cost but smaller providers will struggle (network-level filtering is neither cheap nor easy to develop).

We note that MindGeek are one of those developing their own age verification solution (AgeID) and they intend to license this out to other sites (one-click verification across many sites), which could disadvantage those using other solutions that would require the user to re-verify.

MindGeek also run porn sites that make money by allowing users to upload video content (often this is pirated from other porn produces) and then monetising it via advertising. The company has also suggested blocking up to 4 million websites that contain adult content (including Twitter), unless they pay the MindGeek tax for AgeID, naturally.

Lest we forget the absence of proper judicial oversight for website blocking, which is often necessary in order to prevent poor censorship decisions and to secure independence from politicians or commercial firms.

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Mark Jackson
By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he is also the founder of ISPreview since 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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12 Responses
  1. Joe

    Dangerous Dogs Act all over again….

  2. Sam

    Thanks to the idiocy of the government my VPN seems to be getting additional uses all the time.

    Porn drove the adoption of VHS, DVD and Blu-ray is the VPN next?

  3. Mike

    Buy a VPN router and forget about it.

    Also I think this is less about “save the children” and more about introducing internet ID, first the porn then…

    • timeless

      never liked the idea of using a VPN at router level, mainly because of online banking.. your trusting a third party which is likely to be overseas not to keep an eye on such information.

      l find it safer to have the ability to turn off locally when l need to do tasks relating to money.

    • t0m5k1

      @timeless:
      Re-read what you typed and bear in mind a VPN requires a certain level of trust in the first place.
      Why else would you use a VPN with a provider if you did not trust them?

  4. dragoneast

    All part of the politicians’ manifesto to take us back to the 1950s, as revenge for the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s as people took control of their own lives, and their power waned. Know your place and do as you’re told. Britannia rules the waves; however they come, whether across the sea, through fibre or through the air.

    • CarlT

      A lot of people seem to want to be told what to do. They keep voting for authoritarian politicians that’ll do just that so…

    • timeless

      actually l personally think too few vote, after all Tory voters will always vote Tory. but other voters well.. thats anyones guess.

    • Worth remembering that Labour has also put a lot of support behind changes like this and the previous IPAct. When most of the house wants something flawed then the opportunity for viable change is seriously diminished.

    • CarlT

      Indeed Mark. I didn’t mention a specific party for a reason: the two largest both want to put a leash up our behinds and babysit us.

  5. ash

    Don’t thinks its fair to punish all adults because some parents don’t look after there kids, Also watching porn is apart of growing up. I think 99% of all children will watch porn at some point.;

  6. dragoneast

    Yep. Authoritarianism is popular. Fear is the biggest motivator for any animal. Whether it’s government or commerce: stoke up fear and you’re on to a winner! We all do it.

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