22 March 2019

It’s time to repeal the Porn Laws

By

If you think the Brexit debate is igniting public passions, just wait until people find out that the Government is about to block their porn from next month.

The Digital Economy Act 2017 will force randy Brits to buy a porn pass from their newsagent or hand over their credit card details, passport information, or driving license from next month.

“Oi mate, you got your porn license?” is inevitably set to become the next big internet meme. Incompetent policymakers look set to jeopardise privacy, spark a boom in fraud, and entrench Big Porn. And it will all be for nothing—young people will continue to easily access adult material, albeit from less regulated internet spaces.

We’ve been here before. In 2015, anti-porn zealots pushed through arbitrary changes to legislation that criminalised the possession of material depicting various consensual sex acts. Thankfully, these rules were recently liberalised following dedicated campaigning from sex workers, privacy campaigners and classical liberals including ourselves at the Adam Smith Institute.

The battle for free sexual expression—the “canary in the coal mine” for broader free speech advocacy—is never over. The same coalition of misguided child protection campaigners and moralising puritans have successfully lobbied politicians to enact mandatory age verification schemes. It seems Mary Whitehouse never lost, and never went away.

The most prominent provider of these age verification services will be none other than MindGeek, the owners of the world’s largest porn sites including YouPorn and RedTube. MindGeek claims their AgeID system will hash emails and not record viewing habits, but serious privacy concerns remain. As anyone who remembers the 2015 Ashley Madison leak will recognise, a honeypot of sensitive personal information is a recipe for disaster.

Blackmailers and hostile foreign governments could insert an exploit to gather plain text emails and site viewing habits, spelling trouble for the tens of millions of Brits who watch porn. Public figures and marginalised people in more socially conservative communities stand to lose the most. You just know that the policy will end up outing a young LGBT person to their relatives—it’s a PR disaster waiting to happen for the government, but more importantly it will be a personal disaster.

Moreover, the privacy certification scheme for verification services is currently voluntary, leaving the door open for less privacy-conscious companies to put users at an even greater risk of having their information exposed.

If risking our porn habits becoming available for all to scrutinise wasn’t enough to worry about, credit card fraudsters and identity thieves are set to have a field day. The Open Rights Group has previously warned that “anything that normalises the entry of credit card details into pages where the user isn’t making a payment will increase the fraudulent use of such cards.” It’s easy to imagine users being scammed by fake age verification pages in their rush to access salacious content. It’s even easier to imagine them being too embarrassed to report their troubles to credit card companies.

There’s a whiff of Bootleggers and Baptists about these new porn laws. One of the issues with stricter social media regulation is that Facebook can afford to comply by hiring an army of new moderators, whereas smaller start-ups cannot. The same is true in the adult industry. Large, established porn sites are able to cough up the costs of implementing age verification systems, leaving their smaller (often niche) competitors at a substantial disadvantage. Puritans who fret about the influence of Big Porn are giving a helping hand to the world’s biggest porn sites by letting them tighten their grip on the industry.

Perhaps the puritans will be more pleased to hear that mandatory age verification could make life more dangerous for sex workers. Many websites advertising erotic services in the UK feature significant amounts of pornographic content and are therefore likely to fall foul of age verification rules. Recent research shows that online platforms reduce violence against women—especially sex workers. Anything that makes these sites less attractive advertising prospects risks hampering the ability of sex workers to work indoors, screen their clients and work independently of exploitative managers.

Even with all of these harms at play, you might argue that they’re worth it for the prize of stopping young people from seeing explicit material. Unfortunately, anyone who has ever been a teenager knows that they tend to be quite good at getting around this sort of measure.

It’s never been easier to download a Virtual Private Network and circumvent location-based restrictions or access sites through the dark web, and age verification will simply push more young people towards unregulated internet spaces or get them into trouble for downloading viruses from sham VPN providers. The only thing capable of coming between a determined teenager and pornography is good parenting, or failing that a sex education curriculum that helps young people understand the difference between fantasy and reality.

Recent YouGov polling has found that the overwhelming majority of the general public are completely unaware of these impending changes, but come April they will be in for a rude awakening. The Government must rethink mandatory age verification which looks set to undermine privacy, give a blank cheque to fraudsters, and make no difference to young people’s online viewing habits. It’s time to repeal the porn laws.

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Daniel Pryor is Head of Programmes at the Adam Smith Institute