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UK Internet Porn Censorship to Begin in April 2018


In December of last year, we wrote about the UK The Digital Economy Act. The final version of the law having been approved, this awful (and censorious) law is now at the point where the UK government is working on enforcement.

As a brief refresher (see the original article for more in-depth analysis — the bill hasn’t changed much), the UK Economy Bill has two immediately relevant provisions:

  1. – It requires that anyone “making pornographic material available on the internet” have a system that prevents access by anyone under the age of 18.
  2. – Entirely bans “extreme pornographic material” from being distributed over the Internet.

To enforce these two rules, a new UK regulatory body is going to be given the power to fine violators within the UK, require ISPs to block access to violators’ websites, and — most perniciously — require payment services companies like PayPal stop doing business with violators or face sanctions themselves.

The Digital Economy Act is terrible, but at this point the real questions are when and how exactly is it going to be enforced. According to the BBC, “digital minister” Matt Hancock has said that the age-check requirement is to start in April of 2018. This is an almost comically short time frame to set up an entirely new regulatory body, even notwithstanding that none of the mechanisms it will depend on exist either. It is like trying to simultaneously set up a new police force, legal code, and court system, and get all three up and running in eight months. Even Dr. Victoria Nash, the author of one of the governments report leading to the creation of this bill, said the proposed April deadline “seems … be a very premature date.”

There are essentially only two possibilities, then: either the enforcement will be delayed or it will be a goddamned mess. As bad as this law is, the former is obviously preferable. Disorganized, inconsistent enforcement will only lead to more uncertainty and instability in the industry. Likewise, the anti-porn environment will only get worse as the additional parts of this law come into force. Once websites start being banned for “extreme pornography,” a wave of chilling is likely to follow as websites remove borderline content for fear of being blocked.

That being said, the porn industry is itself being at least partially complicit in this. Mindgeek (the company behind Pornhub and many other major streaming websites) has been working on AgeID, which is a system it proposes to use for age verification across all of its own websites. Mindgeek is also planning to sell the AgeID service to its competitors, which would both give it access to the credit card information of all users, it would allow Mindgeek to track porn viewing habits across the internet.

Jim Killock, Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, observed that this “could lead to porn companies building databases of the UK’s porn habits, which could be vulnerable to Ashley Madison style hacks.” He went on, “There is also nothing to ensure a free and fair market for age verification. We are concerned that the porn company MindGeek will become the Facebook of age verification, dominating the UK market. They would then decide what privacy risks or profiling take place for the vast majority of UK citizens.”

Under this proposed system, consumers are left with no good options. Even in the best case scenario where everything goes smoothly, consumers within the UK who want to view porn will have to give their personal information and credit card number to a corporation who can use it to track them and their porn-viewing habits. Smaller sites that either can’t or don’t want to pay Mindgeek for AgeID will have to buy or create their own age authentication, and there are no guarantees of security. Mindgeek themselves have promised that they don’t intend to use AgeID to track customers, but there is nothing but their word to go on. The Digital Economy Act has no provisions requiring porn sites to protect the information they use for verification and has nothing to say about the method of verification at all.

The future of porn — and privacy — looks grim in the UK.

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