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The Tories push on with their porn crackdown

17 April 2019

3:45 PM

17 April 2019

3:45 PM

This afternoon the government announced the official launch date for its age-verification scheme for online pornography. As of 15th July, X-rated websites (or at least some of them) will have a three-month grace period to ensure that all UK visitors are over 18. If they fail to do so, the government will block them from UK servers entirely.  

This so called ‘porn block’ has been in the works for some time. It’s been dogged by criticism, with everyone from online privacy campaigners (who fear the potential repercussions of creating a giant database of porn-viewers) to LGBT campaigners (who say it disproportionately affects minority groups) calling for it to be scrapped.

Realistically, though, that was never going to happen: right now the Conservatives need all the political wins they can get. Not only is the ‘porn block’ expected to be popular with Middle England (a recent YouGov poll showed that nearly 90 percent of parents backed ‘stricter regulation’), it’s also part of something bigger: the government‘s ‘internet safety strategy’, a rather ambitious (and worrying) plan to make the UK a world leader in preventing online ‘harm’. With Brexit awry, it’s one of the few narratives the government has left.

It’s also likely to be successful – at least on a superficial level. After all, age verification isn’t complicated: mobile phone networks already require customers to prove their age before accessing 18+ content. The government, though, has opted for something less ambitious: instead they’ve identified the biggest pornography websites (based on UK web traffic) and asked them to police this themselves. Those websites, almost all of whom are North America based, have indicated they will comply.

The remaining question, though, is what happens when the big websites have done that. Will the government stop there and chalk it up as a win? Or will they seek to roll it out further and cover all adult websites (something which would be much more difficult). Even if they go with the latter, what will they do about social media? While these platforms already have their own policies around sexually-explicit content, most of them (Twitter in particular) stop well short of an outright ban. In fact, most famous porn performers use Twitter to market their work.

Statistically, of course, younger web-users – the very people the scheme is supposed to target – are more likely to be on social media and to be able to access that content. They’re also more likely to know about things like virtual private networks (VPNs), a routine piece of web-technology which would allow them to completely circumvent the block. As I said when I reported on this last month, it will be ironic if the only impact of the ban is to block older web-users from accessing pornography.

Of course, when it comes to the politics of this, these caveats won’t matter: based on what we’ve heard today, the government will be able to go into the next election saying that it has ‘prevented young people from accessing inappropriate and dangerous content online’ (or words to those effect). If that happens, the porn block will have served its purpose.


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