Digital Bill Fingers Porn

As the election got called the new Digital Economy Bill was working its way through its final stages in the Lords. This throws the bill into doubt but many readers may be interested in (and some affected by) the changes on regulation of online pornography which an incoming government is likely to return to.

The Bill sought to make things that are quite legal to do, illegal to view. Which makes learning to do them safely that bit more difficult. It seems likely the British Board of Film Classification’s standards will be applied: if you couldn’t show it in an 18-certificate film in the cinema, you won’t be able to show it online.

In a bold development, this bill is pitched at any content you can view in the UK – no matter where in the world you’re hosting it.

All prompted by an online poll which suggested one in ten young people in the UK was worried about porn and whether they have watched too much. One in eight respondents said they had taken part in or made a sexually explicit video.

Now, online polls are always accurate reflectors of the nation, and no-one would ever tell a fib on one. That goes double for a teenager being asked about sex – I’m sure I’d have given the same answers whether quizzed by a pal in the playground or a virtual clipboard-wielding researcher while my dad watched me use the internet over my shoulder. And we all have an agreed notion of how many minutes “too much” porn watching constitutes. Oh, wait, that’s not really how it works… but it seems to have been good enough for the government to trot out another bit of legislation to please the “clamp down on filth” lobby.

Backlash UK, an organisation that defends freedom of sexual expression among consenting adults, notes: “At present, the BBFC refuse to classify content depicting numerous consensual acts which are legal to perform in the UK, including fisting, urolagnia, and female ejaculation if the fluid lands on another person or is consumed. It is absurd to criminalise online porn depicting one of the few visual, undeniable representations of female sexual fulfilment, especially if the site is only accessible to over 18s.”

ParliamentThe bill introduces new rules for age verification, in the first instance putting the onus on the web host rather than the individual accessing material for whatever you go on to view. Backlash UK again: “The policy raises serious concerns regarding loss of personal privacy; increased risk of credit card fraud and identity theft; increased state surveillance; misuse of data by private companies; data leaks; adults prevented from viewing legal materials; and serious and significant infringement of freedom of expression.”

Age verification online needs the user to provide some kind of personal information to the website which can then run them through some kind of age verification provider, as for example your bank details, passport number or mobile phone number might prove who you are but under-18s can have bank accounts and passports too.

Since humans are lazy about passwords and almost no-one wants to go through finding their passport every time they log on, it seems inevitable private companies will wind up retaining data about users’ porn browsing history. You want them to keep coming back and paying so you will want to tailor what they see each time they log in based on what they seem to enjoy. That leads to databases of individuals’ sexual tastes, all connected – thanks to this bill – to their identifying details. Remember the Ashley Madison web hack of married people seeking extra-marital affairs? That led to the release of many gigabytes of data including names, home addresses, credit card transactions… imagine every company running a porn site having a similar file waiting to be hacked. Some will be more secure than others. A file showing that you were not just getting excited about someone other than your partner, but that you were thinking about doing this, that and quite a bit of the other. The Daily Mail would probably headline it ‘perverts register.csv’ if that weren’t too techy for their readers.

When this comes into effect we’ll probably have fewer sites, at least accessible from the UK, as each age check will cost a little bit to do, and not every person checked will go on to be a paying customer. The smaller, more alternative, perhaps more likely to be run with a social conscience, and I suspect queerer, sites will get pushed under while the bigger companies can cope with the additional demands.

Assuming it comes back with the new Parliament, when it is set into action there’ll still be up to a year before the bill comes fully into effect. If you want to, enjoy whatever’s on the web while you may.

 

Footnote: As things worked out the bill completed passage before parliament dissolved. Just when we thought there might be an upside to that snap election.