Internet Censorship and Age Verification

Later this year, the UK government will enact a law that requires online providers of pornography to vet the age of their users. Properly. Not just tick a box, but full ID checks. As I see it, this poses some very real problems.

What?

The UK legislation that comes into effect in July will mean that if you want to view content online deemed to be pornographic, you must either:

  • Upload your passport / driver’s license / identification to an online service provider
  • Or, buy a pass from a licensed newsagent
British Passport (image by Annie Spratt on Unsplash)

Why is this a bad thing?

Censorship & Transparency

This is the government ultimately deciding what content should and should not be allowed to be viewed. Unlike content which is objectively bad and easy to categorise (such as videos of beheadings and other right-wing extremism, which currently run rampant on easily accessible sites), pornography is incredibly subjective and hard to define. If implemented badly, you could end up with classical artworks of nudes, critical news on the subject and information sources unrelated to porn being subject to such blocks. Will this rely on self-reporting (that’ll be good for blocked website’s profits), Algorithms (which are bad at properly identifying topics), or enforcement only after breaches of the law are reported (who would report it? who will maintain lists of sites to be blocked?).

Giving more power to governments is also a rather slippery slope. The current mainstream politicians may have a set view of what is considered objectionable. What happens if more extreme politicians are elected, as seems to be happening of late, who have even stronger views about what to censor? It sets a bad precedent.

If this needs to go ahead, then I think a decent solution would be to set up a Citizens Jury to take time and properly categorise what and how content should be censored. The sites that are blocked, the kinds of transactions that are being made, all of this must be made available to the public in as transparent a fashion as possible. This way, advocates of online freedoms can keep tabs on the kinds of censorship that are happening and ensure that nothing amiss is being accidentally caught up.

Privacy & Security

Data is important. Privacy of your data even more so. And yet here we are with the government setting up deals with private companies to handle your data, and happily asking you to just hand over your details.

I don’t imagine it will be long before attackers start emailing people pretending to be an age verification company. This kind of scam (“phishing“) has existed as long as email, but now we’ve got government sanctioned entities, and a hard law that requires you to communicate with them. Granted, that’s only if you want to see porn, but I imagine many people falling victim to such attacks out of fear or misunderstanding. Giving the attackers free ammunition is just plain dumb.

There’s also the problem of security. Asking a private entity to handle personal details, alongside sensitive topics like the kind of pornography that people want to see, seems like a recipe for disaster. No system is 100% secure, and one as sensitive as this, I can guarantee it will be a lucrative target for hackers.

I can only hope that the companies that implement these systems:

  1. Doesn’t log anything that could be sensitive. (Reduces the data available should a breach occur).
  2. Authenticates with randomly assigned pseudonyms. (You don’t need any real data other than the ID).
  3. Destroys copies of personal data the moment verification is completed. (Once you’ve verified someone’s ID, you don’t need to store it – it’s not as if when it expires they somehow get younger).
  4. Puts a lot of effort into oversight of staff involved. (If it’s possible to verify ID in an automated fasion that would be great. But somewhere in the organisation a human will be involved, and humans are not flawless).
  5. Makes the entire system as open as possible. (This way experts can vet it and discover flaws that have been missed).

I would also call on any white hat hackers to stress this system to it limits the moment it comes online, or before if you can contact the companies for some pen-testing. If any flaws can be found early enough, then hopefully any stolen data can be minimised.

Expensive Access

Buying a passport can be expensive and time consuming. In fact, most forms of ID will involve some kind of monetary or time based commitment. And I’ve done some looking, and though the official documentation mentions physical passes, it doesn’t specify what they should cost. Based on my own experiences, stores will charge a lot of money if they can get away with it.

What this means is that for people on very low incomes, something which is increasingly an issue these days in the UK. I’m not going to make some ridiculous claim that everyone is entitled to access adult content. But if this law results in the lower classes of the public losing the ability to access it, simply because they lack the income to pass a verification, that’s a little too Orwellian for my taste.

I would hope that whoever ends up offering the physical passes would do so at no cost. It doesn’t take much time to see that someone is an adult, so there’s no real loss of time or money to the retailer. From a perspective of personal freedoms, offering a no-cost workaround to the verification is purely a good thing.

Missing the Point

The UK government already made attempts to help prevent access to online porn with their requirement that all ISPs require opt-out Internet filtering. I think that if all the government really wanted was to empower more people to protect their children from online content, that is enough for them to have done. I have concerns over Internet filtering, but the system is a fairly simple toggle, on by default, and the end user had full control. They already have systems in place, so what’s being implemented now seems a bit overkill.

Much of the violent imagery these blocks are meant to secure won’t be caught. The sites that distribute this kind of stuff will never willingly enact proper age blocks, and the government could just as easily block them without needing to go through the whole farce of age verification in the first place.

It appears this is wasting a lot of resources that could be better spent. Instead of blocking pornography, might it not be better to tackle the subject at the level of Sex Education in schools? Pre-empt any of the supposed bad side effects in a safe environment, and I imagine that would solve a lot of the problems. Reduce the societal stigma and taboo around topics like sex and porn, and maybe that might do better by allowing people to more easily broach discussion rather than simply relying on a computer to just make the problem go away.

Unenforceable

This whole thing will be astonishingly easy to circumvent. Either via unsafe free proxies or incredibly cheap premium VPN proxies, and in an instant any blocked sites will be accessible again. Kids, the very people this legislation is put in to protect, are often the most tech-savvy, and will find easy ways around the blocks.

And as for the physical “porn passes”. Kids can get hold of alcohol, cigarettes, even hard drugs despite them being age restricted or illegal. It will be easy to get a physical code or pass. And there’s no reasonable solution that could ever overcome that problem.

The BBFC, who are supposed to be in charge of this, state that they won’t target search engines or social media (though they might ask them to “take down accounts“). To me, this looks like a cop-out when faced with a task that is too difficult to complete properly.

What to do

The law is coming into force whether anyone likes it or not, so perhaps debating it is now a moot point. So, here’s some forward advice.

Websites

I can see one easy solution to this whole thing – Any website which might have cause to implement the age vetting, even social media sites though they are in some special sense exempt, should block access to UK users.

This will annoy UK visitors to their websites, and raise awareness of the issue. It will also hamper the profits of those sites. That point makes this whole thing a pipe dream unfortunately.

By simply rejecting any UK visitors, at the very least sites can protect people’s security and privacy. If sufficient explanation of security concerns were given, it would help raise awareness as to why this is such a bad idea. It might also help raise awareness of just how this legislation got through in the first place. In an era where much of British politics takes a back seat to Brexit, that’s a very real concern.

People

Don’t hand over your personal details. To anyone. If you ever must give them to a government official, you should be doing so in physical person, like at a passport issuing office or customs office or DVLA office.

The only place that’s fine to share this online is a website on the gov.uk domain where you have a guarantee it’s going to be processed by the government and not foisted off to some 3rd party.

If you are very desperate to circumvent blocks, use a trustworthy paid VPN. Not a free one. And certainly not one offered by Google or Facebook, whose sole aim is just to harvest your data.

The Government

Despite how I would advise against it, if you’re going down this route, I have just one thing to ask of you. Please, take on board my suggestions to improve it, and then properly and truly enforce this law.  For any site which might have porn on it – make it enact the filter.

Don’t forget that means you need to deal with Twitter, YouTube, Facebook. The myriad chat apps like Discord, Snapchat and others. Search engines – Google and Bing too. You’ve got an uphill battle, let me tell you, but it would be incredibly hypocritical if you just let certain sites off with a slap on the wrist solely because they were too mainstream or difficult to police.

You made the legislation, now please own it. Who knows, maybe I’m wrong and this will be of great benefit to society at large. The only way to find out is to conduct the experiment where you actually enact this law as it was intended. A difficult task, but lets see where it goes.

What next?

It looks as though the legislation is set to come into force regardless. What will happen? Some speculate that this could result in increased piracy of media in general. Others argue that it might be beneficial for society as a whole, despite the censorship. I sincerely doubt much will change. But it is a pushing of the envelope that I’d rather not be witness to, and I really hope the people who implement the technology that will be used to vet ages will be engineered safely and securely.

I will end the article with a quote from the BBFC’s website, which I find particularly amusing, which I will leave without further comment:

I’m 16/17 and can legally have sex and get married. Why can’t I watch pornography?

In the UK, a person is not legally an adult until they are 18. There are several restrictions on a person under 18, including that a person cannot legally enter a licensed sex shop until they are 18.

 

Join the Conversation

  1. This was actually hatched several years ago. At the time, nobody raised any objections because it’s “think of the children”, other than feeble “it won’t work” arguments. Unfortunately Britain is not very good at the moment for individual liberty, and Brexit has demonstrated how little our rulers answer even to direct democratic votes.

    This isn’t really about individual legislation though. What is needed is more fundamental change in people’s public attitudes. Across the Western world we are in an intense moralist phase at the moment and people who speak up for freedom of speech and act are denounced, bizarrely, as being on “the far right” etc. Until people get more libertarian attitudes and aren’t prepared to be led into social tyranny by the Pied Piper playing Think Of The Children and We Have To Fight Terrorism and Somebody May Be Offended (and other similar hit tunes) we are going to have more and more of this type of legislation and less freedom.

    Bear in mind that in the UK, we had a case recently where a teenage girl posted some rap lyrics as a tribute to another young person who had died, and was promptly arrested and convicted of a hate crime, because said lyrics contained some epithets routinely used by Gangsta Rap.

    These are dark times. I imagine it won’t be long until merely using a VPN will get you a visit from the Police.

    1. Good points.

      The annoying thing is when faced with this kind of politicking there is very little movement that making reasonable discussion can give you. Because the other side just defaults back on old arguments and won’t budge. Which gives you a stalemate, where the best you can hope is to hopefully soften the outcome a little. (Hence why my post tried to include a lot of suggestions for compromise).

      Pushing the envelope is a dangerous game, and it’s difficult to get politicians (in Britain anyway) that are willing or able to push in the opposite direction.

      1. Also good points. I think the question of reasonable discussion/debate is an interesting one. But the main point to remember is you aren’t trying to change the person you’re arguing with’s mind. They are very unlikely in any debate to say “Cor, you’re right, I withdraw!”. It’s about convincing other people, the audience effectively.

        Also I’m not much persuaded by compromise. It always ends up with the line creeping one way. There’s an old metaphor of a teacher who finds two kids arguing. There is a cake; child A says they should have half each and Child B wants it all. So the teacher tells them to compromise; Child A gets 1/4 and Child B gets 3/4.

        I’ve studied all this a lot and concluded that we’re now in a repeat of the process that happened in Victorian times of the Establishment imposing morality as a means of self justification (the reasons we got here are too much to go into). As with the post-war period, I feel sadly that only a general rebellion is going to shift things, and sadly that means that we need to go through stuffy, stultifying miserablist moralism for long enough for a new generation to discard and discredit it. And then try this time to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

  2. Personally, I love the measure and what they try to do. It is currently necessary to put a limit on the internet to what can be accessed depending on the age of the person.
    I do not understand why the measure bothers you, because psychological studies have been done, and not now, but many years ago, in which it was found and demonstrated, that children who see pornography since they were very young, when they grow up have problems with sex, in the sense that they become sick people with sex or with strange tendencies. Not all but most.
    I personally lived the case with a girl close to me, which
     We learned years later when the girl became a young woman of 20 years and older, that the potato of that girl was watching pornography and forced to see her with him.
    That girl currently, every boyfriend who has not spent a month of girlfriends with him or sometimes less, and has sex with this new boyfriend as if he were his long-time partner. When asked why she does that, she shames her head and says she does not know why, just that she does it, period. When they took her to a psychologist, after the exams that were done, it was discovered what the father did with her.
    This is suddenly something unusual, but it is not isolated.
    That is something very common nowadays in that many women that are in the street, discotheques, bars etc, do not have much knowledge of the person that they knew suddenly in some place, and when you agree they are having sex with these people, sometimes not even knowing his name, something that in the movies he paints as a very fun and quite healthy adventure.
    I am not a saint, much less a puritan, but from the point of view in which, by the age I have, I can judge many behaviors that I see today, it seems to me that society has gone out in 75 percent of control .
    Do not think I’m an old bitter that everything bothers me, because I’m a man in my forties and something, and I also like to occasionally see one or two sex videos, and that’s why I can have an opinion based on my experience in life, that it is morally wrong and psychologically bad that someone with a mind not prepared to see sexual behavior, has the facility with which today you can see pornography on the Internet, in the privacy of your home, locked in your rooms, where parents have no idea what their children are watching.
    I do not applaud the look of extramn censorship of governments, but the truth is that we must limit citizens to things that are harmful, not only for them, but for society.
    I do not want the government to control what I like to see or not, but that law is not for legal adults, it is to prevent children from creating an account saying they are adults, and the pornos sites, who know that it is easy to access their portals because there is no fence to avoid it, they do not care, because they always say that they are not to blame if the parents are not aware of what their children are doing.
    Every adult knows that as a young man he did things that it was impossible for his parents to know that they were doing it, but that a government wants to help prevent a child from seeing pornography when he is not old enough to do it, it seems very good.
    And that “I am old enough to have sex, but not to see pornography” seems to me that it is a very weak argument to be used as an argument, because today you can avoid that with so much information that they have. children and youth, if nothing else with watching music videos, in which women dress minimally as prostitutes, and not fine. Videos that surprise me to see how women nowadays, who both proclaim that they judge them as they would judge a man, and lower themselves and let them reduce them to mere objects of visual delight, regardless of whether they have lives or dreams of being someone important and that is respected for what it is and not for how he wears clothes. Those are things that do not bother you, but something that benefits everyone’s children annoys you.
    You should focus on things like that, instead of trying to cause hatred in people by laws that try to prevent something that went out of control a long time ago, and that unfortunately only using extreme measures can try to minimize, because always the people will find the way to do the wrong thing
    so that they know it is wrong.

    1. My issue is not with the fact that the government wants to restrict minors from viewing pornography – of course this content should be age restricted.

      The problem I have is with the measure that the government has chosen to implement. I won’t repeat my arguments again, but the primary issue is that this is adding extra measures of identity verification, red tape and cost when the government already has plenty of legislation to protect minors already.

      The government would be better off focusing their efforts on that (it is mandatory for ISPs to offer internet safety filters, for example) rather than adding in new legislation which, by their own admission, won’t even capture the most prevalent and problematic content.

      I am not trying to “cause hatred in people”, I am trying to raise awareness of an issue and explain my point.

    2. You just gave examples of situations that no porn-block can stop.
      If someone abuses another person, you cannot blame the availability of porn when it is the perpetrator of the crime to blame.
      Was it the porn, or the freakish situation no one should ever be in that screwed up your friend ?
      The strongest porn-block in the world can stop someone forcing you to watch it if they have the access, and it cannot stop people being bad.

    3. edycrp, I hope you’re not serious and are only playing “devil’s advocate”! I agree with the other replies here. Your argument essentially boils down to “but we need to use these filters/verifications stop kids seeing porn!” I hate to sound harsh, but that’s laughably naiive. I am a parent and I know that the only way to stop my daughter looking at stuff she shouldn’t, is to monitor her internet usage and talk to her openly as she grows old enough to understand. Saying “the government should do it for me” is a cop-out for lazy parents who can’t be bothered to look after their kids properly. It’s yet another symptom of the “it’s not my fault” culture that crept in during the last Labour government (please note I’m no Tory either). If you can’t trust your kid to use the internet unrestricted on their own, then you shouldn’t let them use it on their own! It’s as simple as that. If your kids want to find porn, trust me, they will find it. There is always an unfiltered site out there somewhere, that you can navigate to. For those sites that require verification, there will always be a way of obtaining a fake ID, or “borrowing” a parent’s credit card to “prove” they are over 18, etc. Even filters and blocks themselves are easily circumvented – and younger people are, on average, more technologically-savvy than their older parents/carers.

      If you can’t trust your kid on the internet, they shouldn’t have their own phone or tab until you can. They should use the family computer in a central location such as the living room, dining room, hallway or wherever. Automated filters and other similar measures are not substitute-parents! They have been repeatedly proven time and time again to be ineffective at best, and often block legitimate sites with unintended and negative consequences.

      Also, who decides what to block? To some people, ANY nudity is “porn”. Without transparency in this process, it will be difficult to study for an art class where you need to learn how to draw the human form, or to search about the history of art (Venus de Milo, or statue of David, anyone?). As for biology, relationship-advice, and sex-education, well, forget it. If this system were to actually work (which, fortunately, it won’t), I could be really pessimistic and say, “thanks to automated overzealous blocking by shortsighted technically-illiterate people bandwagon-jumping, expect a generation of kids who haven’t got a clue how to stop themselves getting pregnant or catching AIDS”. …Which leads very nicely back to the absurdity pointed out in this blog-post’s closing quote.

      If what you wish for comes true, expect our already-overstretched maternity wards and STD clinics to be full of under-18s who don’t know how they got there. Isn’t that the polar-opposite of what was intended?

  3. You make some very persuasive arguments here. I must say I agree.
    Yes, the concept is right, the implementation, from what I can see, leaves a lot to be desired.
    There are just too many things that can go wrong here especially from the privacy issues you mention.
    In my opinion, this type of system would be totally unmanageable. Sure it would create lots of jobs and a whole new level of bureaucracy.
    Let me introduce my good friend, The Law of Unintended Consequences, ‘Luc’ as I call him may not come into the picture for 5 or 10 years, but he will! Of course his issue will be something totally unthought of today so a solution may require a complete rethink or perhaps trashing of the system. (Then, what of all that beautiful data? Mmmm)
    As you say, “It appears this is wasting a lot of resources that could be better spent.” I suspect any ‘child’ 50 years my junior could procure a fake driver’s license and get a ‘porn pass’.
    For now I am happy not to be a resident of the UK, though my own government/police is/are working on similar schemes to impose their own form of morality on us.

  4. The oppressed grow up with the risk of becoming oppressors.

    Oppressors like jobs as politicians for the extra power and influence they can get. Only the ethical person can carry political influence wisely.

    Most, like Vladimir Putin who has now banned VPNs, and Donald Trump, with his wet dreams appointing himself emperor of United States for Life, prove that homo sapiens are a species making marvelous displays of genius, but are easily overruled by fear and hatred. Just observe Joeseph Goebbels, Machiavelli, Hitler. Trump, Putin, Duterte, and the list is long

  5. The more you suppress something, the sneakier the children become because they want to do what the adults do, as adolescents they often have perfected it.

    If something is normal and boring, they usually don’t care about that stuff.

    Basically the UK government deprives the parents of the right of decision – maybe the government should take care of the children too and such avoid the mingling parents? – and punishes those who are rightfully allowed to watch “adult” content with their micromanagement.

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