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The UK has now entered a draconian era of porn prohibition

How the Digital Economy Bill will infringe on our freedoms. 

This article was first published in November 2016. The Digital Economy Bill was granted Royal Assent on 27 April and has now become law. 

“Won’t somebody please think of the children?”

Helen Lovejoy’s signature Simpsons line can now be used to accurately summarise the latest developments to the government’s Digital Economy Bill. The proposed legislation, which was first introduced to Parliament in July, has always aimed to enforce age verification on pornographic websites so that they cannot be accessed by children under the age of 18. On Sunday, however, new measures were announced; all websites that do not implement age verification will be banned in the UK.

“The government is committed to keeping children safe from harmful pornographic content online and that is exactly what we are doing,” said Karen Bradley, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. “Only adults should be allowed to view such content.” The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) has been appointed to enforce these measures.

In short, what this means is that our privacy and security are now under threat. Fears abound about how age verification will work, as being forced to reveal your identity before accessing porn will open the doors for hacking, blackmail, and potentially, credit-card fraud. Beyond this, however, the governmental blocking of websites on moral grounds sets a scary precedent for our future, particularly considering the phrasing of the Bill, which discusses “adult” sites with no exclusive emphasis on pornography.

“Blocking sites that don't comply could lead to tens of thousands of websites being blocked, despite their content being perfectly legal. This is unprecedented in the developed world,” says Jim Killock, executive director at Open Rights Group, an organisation that aims to raise awareness of digital rights. “Child protection is important, but this proposal is disproportionate. Web blocking should be reserved for illegal and harmful content.”

This development comes after the Investigatory Powers Bill was passed last week, a move that the actual inventor of the actual world wide web, Tim Berners-Lee, marked with the words: “Dark, dark days.” The IP Bill passed with little public resistance and it seems the government is relying on this same apathy, combined with a British reluctance to talk about – and admit to watching – pornography, to pass this law.  

As British citizens, however, we must protect our rights as wankers of the world. No one can protest the notion of “protecting children” – though whether pornography is actually that damaging to adolescent brains is also up for debate – but there are far easier, less draconian measures that can be implemented.

“According to Ofcom, over 90 per cent of parents mediate their children’s online activities in some way,” says Killock, referring to the abundance of parental controls that exist to limit children’s internet activity. “Children need better education not censorship, if we are to keep them safe.”

The majority of households in the UK are also childless, so enacting this measure across the board seems unnecessarily punitive. To use a simple, real-world analogy, this law is like forcing adults to hand over their ID, bank details, and be put on a list in order to enter a sex shop, when parents could instead simply stop their children from reaching for the door handle.

The move is also idiotic because it is impossible. The government has underestimated the power of horny teenagers to bypass their restrictions and the law will therefore ironically punish the old – ie. those who have never heard of a VPN – who might open themselves up to malware in their efforts to find accessible porn sites.

The issue, however, goes far beyond our sexual freedom. Even if you don’t watch pornography, you should be concerned by the precedent the government is setting to control and censor our online habits. If this Bill is passed, the government will have unprecedented abilities to block sites without a lengthy judicial process, and by making it illegal to circumnavigate these blocks, they will have greater control over us all.

In order to protect ourselves from a dawning era of porn prohibition and internet censorship, we must act now. The Open Rights Group has created a petition to prevent the censorship of legal content, and you can also take it into your own hands and write to your own MP to oppose the Bill. You can protest in person or on social media, and help by spreading news about the proposed laws. Most importantly of all, however, we must loosen our stiff British upper lips and admit, once and for all, that we are all wankers.  

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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Technology can change the world – provided we have a measure of democracy, too

You could say we need a technological revolution for the many, not the few. 

Over the last five decades, the American Consumer Technology Association’s annual jamboree has grown to become the world’s largest tech show: attracting over 190,000 visitors and 4000 companies, with 7,460 reporters filing 59,969 reports over the course of four days in Las Vegas. In the process, it has achieved an almost mythical status – from unveiling the first-ever home VCR (Philips 1970) to Bill Gates’ resignation from Microsoft in 2006, and has included cameo appearances by the likes of Jay-Z and Barack Obama.

As a fully qualified geek (Electrical Engineering degree, 20 years in tech – before it was cool) and the shadow minister for Industrial Strategy Science and Innovation, I couldn’t resist seizing the opportunity to venture to Las Vegas while on a family holiday to the US’ west coast; hoping, against all hope, to see the progressive future of a technology-enabled, more equal world.

If only.

But I did emerge with a renewed conviction that technology can solve our problems – if we use it to do so.

In some ways, the most remarkable thing about the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) was the way it demonstrated how technology has taken over our entire world. CES was a car show in the middle of a health show, which happened to be around the corner from a home show, which was adjacent to a sports show that was next to an entertainment show. Just about every sector was represented.

Nissan had a huge stand for their new autonomous vehicle showcasing the ‘Brain-Vehicle Interface’, as did Philips for their new sleep enhancing devices, and Huawei for their connected home. In 2018, technology can be used as an enabling platform to aid just about everything. And in a world where near enough everything is politicised, technology is very political.

But this was not evident from CES: not from the stands, neither the keynotes, nor the participants. There were few speakers from civic society nor governments, and those politicians who attended – such as Donald Trump’s Transportation Secretary, Elaine Chao – talked only of their ‘excitement’ at the sunlit uplands technology could guide us to. The show existed in its own, largely self-sufficient world. While Ford created an entire street to show off its autonomous cars, there was no reference to who would pay for the road, pavements, lamp-posts and guttering if only robots worked.

And as a politician rather than an engineer, it is the societal impact that matters most to me. One realisation brought about by my visit is that I have greatly under-estimated the consequences of driverless vehicles: communications, parking, urban layout, and public transport are all likely to be deeply impacted. The automobile industry is working to position cars as your personal moving office-cum-front room-cum-hotel-cum-lecture theatre; where you can work, maintain personal and social relationships, unwind and learn – all while going from A to B. How will crowded, under-funded public transport compete?

At the show, Nissan launched its Brain-to-Vehicle technology, which reads the driver’s brainwaves to determine when the car’s intelligence should intervene. Although I'm personally unsure about the inclusion of brain surveillance in the driving experience, it may well be the next logical step as we increasingly give up our data in return for ‘free’ services. Certainly the anthropologists at Nissan argued that this was the very definition of assisted artificial intelligence.

Fortunately, autonomous vehicles are not the only way to get around. Improvements in battery technology mean that – between electric scooters capable of folding away into airplane carry on, and electric bikes with the power of motorcycles – personal mobility has become a market in its own right.

Personal health and sport were also big themes at the event. Philips has brought back the night cap, which not only looks far more fetching than the Victorian original, but is now also capable of lulling you gently into a slumber before monitoring the quality of your sleep. Orcam’s discrete camera-glasses for the visually impaired can read text and recognise people, whilst L’Oréal’s UV Sense is a sensor small enough to be worn comfortably on your fingernail that detects ultraviolet exposure.

One aspect of the show that has remained largely unchanged is its demographics. Whilst the glossy adverts on the walls depict women and BME people using technology, those actually designing it were, with a few exceptions, male and largely white. As always, there were no queues for the women’s loos and while there were not any ‘F1 girls’, the gender balance was improved largely by attractive women, who were not engineers, being employed to ‘explain’ technological advances.

Weeks later, the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos was also dominated by technology, which the Prime Minister used as a fig leaf to cover the absence of vision for Brexit. Lacking in both the CES and Davos, was any sense that the interests of the many had any significant stake in what was going on. We need a Labour government to help change that.

Chi Onwurah is the Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, and the shadow minister for industrial strategy.