The government's age restrictions on porn create more problems than they solve

Access to online pornography needs a lasting solution. The government has merely offered up a quickie.

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Yesterday, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) announced the UK would be implementing a new law to put age restrictions on those attempting to view pornography. The controversial regulation is scheduled to come into effect on 15 July 2019.

While few would object to the idea of putting preventative measures in place so that 9 year-olds don’t come across smut when browsing the internet, the new regulation isn’t that simple. In fact, the new age restrictions are likely to cause more problems than they solve – limiting our online experiences beyond anything to do with porn, while making porn just as easily accessible to kids.

As with many bans of contentious material – see drugs, alcohol, etc – people have voiced concerns that making mainstream porn sites inaccessible to children will mean that they are simply driven to dodgier sites. Public calls for more ethical porn rather than less porn are gaining traction, and many campaigners have argued that the ban is skirting the real issue (unethical porn that exploits and demeans, mostly, women), addressing a symptom rather than the problem.

Another major complaint with the new regulation is that, when people access porn, it doesn’t always mean going to a mainstream porn site like xHamster, YouPorn, or Porn Hub: much online porn is accessed through non-explicitly pornographic sites. This is how you get incidents like presidential candidates liking tweets of porn clips or Tumblr banning adult content from its platform. People consume porn through a variety of untraditional channels, and a lot of the time will turn to social media first for their pornographic needs. But despite this relatively obvious reality, the ban will exempt social media sites from complying with the new rules because these sites are predominantly not for porn. In effect, this exemption will still make porn incredibly easy to find on mainstream sites.

Another part of the problem is that DCMS may store millions of peoples’ private data as part of the regulation. Although this hasn’t yet been confirmed, the rumours circulating around the ban suggest that some sites will require users to upload a driver’s license, passport, or another form of ID in order to prove that they are over the age of 18. The government alluded to this in their press release about the new regulation, saying:

“In addition to the requirement for all age-verification providers to comply with General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) standards, the BBFC have created a voluntary certification scheme, the Age-verification Certificate (AVC), which will assess the data security standards of AV providers. The AVC has been developed in cooperation with industry, with input from government.

Certified age-verification solutions which offer these robust data protection conditions will be certified following an independent assessment and will carry the BBFC’s new green ‘AV’ symbol.”

However, DCMS is so far off to a rocky start. When sending out this press release, it forgot to blind copy in the 300+ journalists it was emailing about the news and instead provided a comprehensive list of email addresses for every tech writer they have on file. Twitter was immediately spammed with journalists tweeting about the DCMS screw-up, and some noted the irony that that the email itself is likely a serious GDPR breach (the law stipulates that anyone’s personal information, such as their name and email address, cannot be shared with any other parties unless permission is explicitly granted).

Beyond the issues behind the law’s effectiveness, its limitations, and the safety of the DCMS potentially storing our private information, there’s another major flaw: can we really rule that under-18s shouldn’t be allowed to watch porn? While the law is targeted at very young children too, its remit will likely be aimed at protecting children aged 7-17. But when anyone aged 16 years and old can legally get married and have sex, the logic behind the new regulation feels off.  Why should 16 and 17 year-olds not be allowed to watch other people doing what they can legally do themselves?

There are still almost three months until the regulation is implemented. Unanswered questions around logistics and practicalities will (hopefully) be answered in that time. However, as it stands now, the government’s new porn ban is shaky – a quickie, when what’s needed is a lasting solution. 

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer.