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14 February 2022

Porn has bigger problems than teenagers watching it

The government's age verification rules would never work and would penalise smaller, more ethical creators most.

By Sarah Manavis

Solving the serious and dangerous problems of the porn industry often feels like an impossible task. There are extreme disagreements, indeed, about what is even a problem at all.

Many people believe we should be trying to protect sex workers from abuse and exploitation, while others argue that sex work is not a legitimate form of work and that those involved should be discouraged (or banned) from participating. Similarly, while some view porn as a social harm almost by definition, there are those who believe that sexual expression shouldn’t be demonised, and that what we should really strive for is better, safer porn.

Within this debate there are few areas of common ground. But they do exist: things like revenge porn (when pornographic content of someone is shared against their will), images of child sexual abuse, and trafficking within the porn industry. These are complicated to address and difficult to create legislation for, but the universal agreement that they are wrong means they are safe topics: you can guarantee that an attempt to solve these problems will be met with public support.

Which is why a government announcement this week has been criticised by campaigners. It won’t be addressing any of these issues, but instead focuses on banning teenagers from watching it by forcing porn companies to begin using age verification technology to keep out under-18s.

The new rules, announced by Chris Philp, the digital minister, on 8 February, “Safer Internet Day”, require any porn provider large or small to check the ages of all users. Companies which fail to comply will face major fines of up to 10 per cent of their annual worldwide turnover, or a ban on being accessible in the UK. The rules have been added to the Online Safety Bill, a piece of legislation that has been widely criticised for its vagueness, obsession with censorship, puritanical approach to internet use and failure to address the real harms of being online. 

This age verification idea appears to be a particular obsession of the Conservatives. A similar initiative – dubbed the “porn block” – was announced by David Cameron’s government and scrapped in 2019 after it proved too technically difficult to execute. It received fierce criticism from campaigners who argued that it would have been a minefield of privacy and data protections issues, and that there shouldn’t be a log kept of what porn people have been watching. The new rules provoke the same concerns. Though it is not yet clear exactly how ages will be verified, some ideas listed by the government include “checking a user’s age against details that their mobile provider holds, verifying via a credit card check, and other database checks including government held data such as passport data”. All of these options lead to the question: how can this be done without revealing the user’s identity to either the government or to companies?

These technical and privacy issues are important to highlight, and are more than sufficient reason to abandon the proposal. Even if they could be addressed, there’s another problem. If we’re talking about online safety and trying to address the greatest harms in this industry, we must ask: is the biggest safety issue with porn really teenagers watching it? Even if we wanted to say that this technology could be implemented widely, it’s likely that only a handful of under-18s will be affected – most teenagers will find ways to get around this unsophisticated tech. And while it might prevent a few young children who would have stumbled across porn sites from gaining access, treating age restrictions as porn’s principal problem makes its greater dangers – underage porn, revenge porn, the mistreatment of porn actors and sex workers – fade into the background, while something relatively minor takes disproportionate precedence.

In fact, the legislation could make some of the problems – the way women are portrayed, the dominance of the major platforms – worse. It is likely that the tech required would be expensive and only affordable for the biggest porn companies. What about the smaller outfits that treat porn actors decently and try to make ethical porn that portrays women in a more empowering way than the mainstream offering? What about the independent sex workers making a living online who may not be able to handle these regulations as sole traders? It feels inevitable that the real victims won’t be the exploitative companies that can handle a dip in users, but the places that could actually help to diversify the porn industry and give the teenagers who do find their way there a more varied representation of sex. Similar legislation has been passed in the US and sex workers are the ones bearing the brunt. It has been described as “trickle down censorship”, where companies ban individuals on an ad-hoc basis, applying a “better safe than sorry” policy and removing users who might not have broken any rules “just to be safe”.  

Much like the other aspects of the Online Safety Bill, the government is looking for simple solutions to complex problems. Age verification measures may help gain them positive headlines and popularity with over-concerned parents but the new rules would all but guarantee paltry results. Regardless of your moral stance, no problems with porn will be solved by shoddy tech that only addresses one tiny element of an industry riddled with much larger issues that are in more desperate need of attention.

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