Why blocking explicit websites "should worry us all"

There’s a potentially explosive deadline looming which could affect millions across the country – and it’s not Brexit.

Age verification is due to come into force next month, meaning X-rated websites will ask would-be viewers to prove their age in a bid to prevent under-18s accessing unsuitable material.

Dubbed the “Porn Block” a Professor of Sexual Cultures at the University of Sunderland, believes the new law is an “easy point-scoring political exercise” unlikely to have the intended impact and likely to have other consequences, particularly for data privacy, which “should worry all of us”.

Professor Clarissa Smith said: “Verification of adult content has not been well thought out and the problem it seeks to solve is unlikely to be fixed. While most people agree that under-18s accessing pornography is not good, controls of this kind are unlikely to prevent inquisitive teens accessing content. 

So, what is the UK ‘Porn Block’?

All pornographic websites will be required to have verification of a user’s age before they can permit them to view the website.

Enforcement will be the responsibility of the British Board of Film Classification – the body responsible for setting age restrictions on films – with the power to require internet service providers (ISPs) or mobile network operators to block sites that don’t comply.

Professor Smith said: “Over the last two decades government has rolled out a series of laws aimed at curbing pornography online, the legislation has not been based on good evidence and in fact, this decision appears to have been triggered by some very poor research, which asked young people a series of very broad questions and then interpreted the results in such a way as to suggest that the majority of young people risked becoming ‘addicted’ to porn.

“That kind of scaremongering is never a good basis for legislation but the reality is, regulating porn is an easy way to score points. In a political sense, you can be seen to be doing something and few people are going to stand up and tell you that you’re wrong.

“Yet, if we really are worried about young people ‘becoming addicted’, simply saying ‘you can’t look at this material’ is hardly a solution to that. Sexually explicit imagery is available on all types of platforms across the internet; introducing age verification will not stop young people seeing it or seeking it out.”

How will the ‘Porn Block’ work for those wanting to access the sites?

The type of age-verification will depend on which sites you visit.

One option - Age ID - has been developed by MindGeek which owns popular sites such as Pornhub, YouPorn, RedTube and Brazzers. This will work by redirecting to a non-pornographic page where personal data such as email addresses and card details can be entered.

Professor Smith added: “If you’re not happy giving over these details, and a lot of people won’t be, it is expected that some shops across the UK may offer special ID cards so people can verify their identity. The cards will reportedly give a verification code that lasts for 24 hours to prove your age.

“But of course, both these options raise the very significant issue of people being required to hand over personal details in order to access sexual content – as we saw with the Ashley Madison hack, we can’t just hand over our privacy and our private details to tech companies and hope for the best. With this legislation comes the creation of the largest database of British porn habits and no one is taking adequate responsibility for what could happen to that data.”

Will porn sites be able to ignore the changes?

The Government says companies who continue to rely on users to confirm their age without further cross-checking will be in breach of the new law.

Getting users to tick a general disclaimer that says ‘anyone using this website will be deemed to be over 18’ – which is already in place on many porn sites – has been dismissed as not going far enough.

Professor Smith said: “These plans ignore the fact that wanting to view sexual imagery can be really important to people - often young people are accessing porn in a bid to learn about sex and sexuality or to figure out their sexual identity. While porn is clearly not the best sex educator, we’re not providing these resources anywhere else – so what are young people going to do?.

“As we have seen online in the past, preventing people from accessing certain material simply leads them to find other ways and other platforms to seek out what they want. So we may be pushing young people (who are much more tech savvy than many adults) towards even more problematic areas of the web simply because they are curious about an entirely normal aspect of human life.

“We have to be careful that in trying to solve a problem we don’t fully understand, we actually end up make things much worse.”

To learn more about Professor Clarissa Smith’s work, click here