The UK has now entered a draconian era of porn prohibition

How the Digital Economy Bill will infringe on our freedoms. 

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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 features editor at Shortlist.com, she was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer, and tweets at @ameliargh.