It’s not often when you cheer over a government’s incompetence, but in this case, I raise a glass in its honor.
While the country is busy tearing itself apart and politicians wage internal battles over Brexit, an old promise, made in the spirit of “will someone think of the children?,” has been broken.
In April this year, the UK government announced the launch of a mandatory scheme that would force websites displaying adult content, including pornographic material, to erect age barriers to make sure their visitors were over 18 years of age.
There were some exceptions, including content displayed for artistic purposes and both image and video hosting portals where adult content is not monetized or considered the majority of uploaded content — social networks being an example.
The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) was due to oversee the project, in which “enter your birthday” forms would no longer be enough, as visitors can easily lie.
Instead, the UK government wanted more substantial proof, such as the entry of credit card details for verification, scanned passports or other forms of ID, or through the purchase of colloquially-known ‘porn passes’ from your nearby newsagent.
“It’s only common sense,” the BBFC says on a website explaining the scheme. “Offline, we put age limits on access to pornography and things like alcohol and gambling. You wouldn’t let a young child go into a sex shop and look at pornography — you’d expect the shopkeeper to turn them away. The DEA (Digital Economy Act 2017) enables us to offer equivalent protection online.”
Now, the government has admitted the scheme is dead in the water.
Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport Nicky Morgan, said the porn block has been quashed in preference for “wider online harms proposals” and the implementation of an “effective means for companies to meet their duty of care” to underage online users.
“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,” Morgan said.
The lofty goals of the scheme, arguably, had little basis in reality. It is already possible for parents to block access to pornographic websites at home by enabling ISP-level controls, but attempting to control online adult content across the Internet is outside of the UK government’s powers.
In June, I flagged some of the potential problems. The BBFC told ZDNet that the agency would send “requests” for search engines and payment processors to withdraw their services to websites that refused to comply — of which they were given the tight deadline of July 15 this year — but this does not reasonably show any true power of enforcement.
Granting pornographic websites the power to ask for ID and financial information, too, is a disaster waiting to happen. This would create repositories of users and their identities, and these databases — which may or may not be covered under Europe’s GDPR regulations — would become valuable targets for cyberattackers.
Watching adult content, by its nature, should remain private, but should one of these databases become compromised, cyberattackers would have a wealth of information that could be used for blackmail schemes — and would likely prove to be very successful.
Users would not want their porn visits or sexual preferences to be leaked to family members, friends, or employers, and so might be more likely to pay up, as the Ashley Madison breach highlighted.
Not only this, but if databases were simply compromised and dumped online, the information could be permanently harmful to those who have visited even one adult website.
It is also important to note the sheer futility of trying to stop children “stumbling across” pornographic material online, a phrase used by officials in an attempt to raise support for the plan.
Perhaps someone in office finally took the time to look up what a virtual private network (VPN) is. This software, available for free and on a subscription basis, can be used to mask a user’s location and bypass UK checks altogether.
It takes seconds to find, a minute to download and install, and would easily be found and used by teenagers intent on accessing pornographic material.
It is an unfortunate reality that under-18s can access inappropriate material on the Internet and without challenge. However, there are steps that parents can take.
ISP-level blocks, chosen at the router level, can block websites deemed harmful. On mobile devices, both Apple (iOS) and Google (Android) have published guides to set up content controls.
This may not be a popular opinion, as well as an inconvenience, but we should not support age-related controls for online content if it means giving third-party companies the ability to harvest and store extremely sensitive data, cyberattackers the opportunity to blackmail individuals, and governments the backing to censor what we watch or see.
Instead, it’s up to parents to take the time to learn about content out there, the controls readily available on mobile devices they give their kids, and how to stop them from accessing content deemed harmful in order to protect them as far as humanly possible.