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ISP UK Internet Porn Ban Stalled and Shifted to Online Harms Bill

Wednesday, October 16th, 2019 (3:49 pm) - Score 1,480
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Confusion reigns today after the Government confirmed that its controversial new internet Age Verification (AV) system, which was due to be implemented by commercial websites and “apps” that contain pornographic content (broadband ISPs would be forced to block sites that fail to comply), “will not be commencing.” But there’s a catch.

The system (see our summary), which was due to be overseen by the British Board of Film Classification (predicted to cost c.£4.4m), has been beset by concerns over weak privacy controls (e.g. handing passports and payment details to companies linked with porn peddlers), cost, the potential impact upon sex workers (i.e. pushing them off-line and back onto the streets), freedom of expression and technical limitations (easy to circumvent, not least via VPN, Proxy Servers and DNS over HTTPS (DoH) etc.).

NOTE: According to the Government, smaller ISPs with fewer than 100,000 subscribers will not be required to enforce the DNS level blocking of adult websites.

On top of that there have been questions over whether it’s even necessary, particularly since Sky Broadband, BT, TalkTalk, Virgin Media and other UK ISPs already offer optional network-level filtering systems, which work just fine.

Last year the former UK Digital Minister, Margot James, said: “We expect it to be in force by Easter of next year [2019]” and earlier this year that was delayed to mid-July 2019, before later appearing to have been put on the back burner until the end of 2019.

However the government has this afternoon decided not to commence the relevant part of the 2017 Digital Economy Act, which underpinned the AV system. Some are reporting that this means the AV system has been scrapped, but the Government’s statement suggests that it could instead be broadened to include social media firms (e.g. Twitter, Facebook) as part of their future and similarly controversial Online Harms Bill.

Nicky Morgan MP, Culture Secretary (DCMS), said:

“The government has concluded that this objective of coherence will be best achieved through our wider online harms proposals and, as a consequence, will not be commencing Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act 2017 concerning age verification for online pornography.

The Digital Economy Act objectives will therefore be delivered through our proposed online harms regulatory regime. This course of action will give the regulator discretion on the most effective means for companies to meet their duty of care. As currently drafted, the Digital Economy Act does not cover social media platforms.

The government’s commitment to protecting children online is unwavering. Adult content is too easily accessed online and more needs to be done to protect children from harm. We want to deliver the most comprehensive approach to keeping children safe online and recognised in the Online Harms White Paper the role that technology can play in keeping all users, particularly children, safe.

We are committed to the UK becoming a world-leader in the development of online safety technology and to ensure companies of all sizes have access to, and adopt, innovative solutions to improve the safety of their users. This includes age verification tools and we expect them to continue to play a key role in protecting children online.”

Sadly yesterday’s 2019 Queen’s Speech was decidedly vague on when we might expect the Government to publish the “draft legislation for pre-legislative scrutiny” on their new bill, which effectively means that the implementation of the AV system has yet again been delayed (for how long.. nobody knows).

BBFC Statement

“The introduction of age-verification on pornographic websites in the UK is a necessary and important child protection measure. The BBFC was designated as the Age-verification Regulator under the Digital Economy Act 2017 (DEA) in February 2018, and has since worked on the implementation of age-verification, developing a robust standard of age-verification designed to stop children from stumbling across or accessing pornography online.

The BBFC had all systems in place to undertake the role of AV Regulator, to ensure that all commercial pornographic websites accessible from the UK would have age gates in place or face swift enforcement action.

The BBFC understands the Government’s decision, announced today, to implement age-verification as part of the broader online harms strategy. We will bring our expertise and work closely with government to ensure that the child protection goals of the DEA are achieved.”

As a result internet users can continue looking at jiggling buttocks and sweaty body parts online for a little longer, all without being forced to share their personal / financial details or use circumvention measures. Mind you it’s still possible to do the same by flicking to late night TV shows on Channel 4/5, but that’s another story.

Generally it can take at least a year for new bills to go through the motions and we haven’t even seen the first draft yet. On top of that the Government is in a minority position and this tends to slow progress, as could Brexit’s dominance of the current political agenda. Even once you’ve turned a bill into an act then companies often need time to prepare, which rather suggests that we won’t see AV going live until later in 2021.. at the earliest.

Lest we forget that a snap General Election is still a distinct possibility before the end of this year.

UPDATE 4:35pm

The Open Rights Group, which has been fighting against the AV system, has given their response.

Jim Killock, Executive Director of Open Rights Group, said:

“Age verification for porn as currently legislated would cause huge privacy problems if it went ahead. We are glad the government has stepped back from creating a privacy disaster, that would lead to blackmail scams and individuals being outed for the sexual preferences.

However it is still unclear what the government does intend to do, so we will remain vigilant to ensure that new proposals are not just as bad, or worse.”

Leave a Comment
6 Responses
  1. Avatar Sam

    Anyone who knows anything about how the internet works will not be surprised by this.

  2. Avatar Fred

    I wonder how much money had been flushed down the pan on yet another Tory farce?

    Right from day one anybody who had any idea what they were talking about said this wasn’t workable.

    Although not robust, a good start would be encrypted DNS providers with optional adult filters. That way we could have encrypted DNS and a bit of help filtering content from kids. Of course the government almost certainly has other reasons against encrypted dns – DNS data is too valuable am asset.

    • Avatar Fred

      And before anyone comments, I know the above can still be for around with proxys, vpn, tor etc but it would be something.

    • Avatar beany

      “I wonder how much money had been flushed down the pan on yet another Tory farce?”

      A little unfair its been all sides that had led to this or more bluntly mainly do-gooder MPs on all sides with no clue, that just want sex to cease to exist to ‘protect the children’.

  3. Avatar Mike

    No doubt they will try and find another way to slip in internet ID if AV falls.

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