In just a few weeks, the government begins its crackdown on porn. From April, all UK-based internet users will be required to prove their age before accessing adult websites. And if they can’t? As they say on the doors, it’s no ID, no entry.
Since the arrival of the internet, and then the smartphone, parents have fretted about how easy it is for children to watch porn, and the impossibility of enforcing age restrictions. In 2015, David Cameron included an age-verification scheme in his election-winning manifesto and, after some delays, Whitehall is now ready to go. But is the plan too intrusive? And is it even remotely feasible? Potentially, say the experts — just with some big caveats.
So how will consenting adults access pornography in a post-block world? The government has worked with the industry to develop a handful of age-verification tools. They range from apps that allow you to scan in your passport to over-the-counter porn passes, costing around £5, which will be available from newsagents later this year (returning the humble corner shop to the centre of the porn-buying world). These passes generate a unique ID code which vouches for your adult status online.
The scheme depends on co-operation: the government plans to instruct the 50 biggest porn websites, by UK-based traffic, to implement it first. Given that most are US-based, there’s a chance they’ll refuse to play ball. This could mean the end of the war on porn; or it could lead to those websites being completely blocked from UK internet service providers — making them unavailable to any British users, regardless of age.
That sort of ban would be a bold step, but it is possible. (The American shock-tabloid the National Enquirer, which has an admirable record of ignoring super-injunctions, has been blocked from UK browsers for some time.) But might it be counterproductive?
Two weeks ago I met a woman called Anna Richards who produces tasteful porn for women and couples. She told me she’d been making films since 2015 and has been nominated for industry awards. But she now worries her website, FrolicMe, could lose out — and that the rules intended to tackle the yuckier end of the industry will in the end be most punitive for the more tasteful sex sites we should perhaps encourage.
Independent websites like these represent a fraction of porn traffic, the vast majority of which has been sucked up by the proliferation of the so-called ‘tube’ sites: the kings of online porn. Like YouTube (from which they take their name), the tube sites are essentially giant super-servers to which internet users can upload their own content, which is then indexed into a user-friendly library.
The sites are free to browse and make their money through advertising revenue. But to independent producers, the tube sites are parasitic: stealing their content and monetising the resulting traffic. Pornhub, one of the largest sites, attracts some 90 million visitors a day. Experts estimate that around 15 per cent of total internet traffic is adult content, and Pornhub makes a big contribution to that figure.
In an unexpected twist, the company which owns Pornhub, Mindgeek, has become directly involved in helping the UK government formulate its porn block, even designing its own age-verification app. For independent producers, this is a big problem. It’s the equivalent of asking Wetherspoons to draft an anti-drink-driving scheme for the entire hospitality industry. They fear the new rules will inevitably benefit the big boys.
Dr Hywel Phillips, a particle physicist who went from working at CERN to running Silk Soles — a home for ‘elegant barefoot erotica’ — is anticipating the worst. He’s already developed a workaround: using geo-tagging data, he will direct UK traffic to a non-pornographic landing page (one of the requirements of the new law) from which they can then subscribe using a credit card — thus proving they are over 18.
For the savvy viewer, there are other loopholes. If you’re internet-literate you might use a virtual private network (VPN): a routine piece of software which hides your geographic location. It’d be ironic, but not surprising, if the result of the ban was to prevent only the lonely elderly from accessing porn, while the young simply get around it.
The issue won’t spark a mainstream revolt (although some producers are planning a protest outside parliament), but it’s a worry even so. Politicians love power and the porn block, if it’s presented as a success, might well become the first step towards a more sinister development: increased regulation of the internet. This weekend, the Mail on Sunday reported that ministers were drawing up plans for a powerful new regulator — ‘Ofweb’ — to fine social media giants for failing to remove ‘harmful’ content. Experts believe these new rules will apply to popular forums such as Mumsnet and TripAdvisor too.
Back in February, the DCMS select committee published its flagship report on ‘fake news’ — calling for government control over platforms like Facebook to prevent the spread of disinformation. Soon afterwards, the campaigners behind Leveson 2, the discredited press regulation plan, backed its calls for ‘tough powers’ over our browsing habits. The obscenity lawyer Myles Jackman (no relation) has a catchphrase: ‘Pornography is the canary in the coal mine for free speech.’ The link between pornography and free expression isn’t new, and nor is it trivial.
Unsurprisingly, Downing Street is undeterred by criticism of its scheme, or anxieties over free speech. Ministers are quite sure it will play well with voters and they’re so desperate for positive PR that no one’s thinking about the unintended consequences. The porn block will be part of a happy new post-Brexit rebrand, they imagine. But the government might be in for a shock. The majority of Brits (76 per cent according to YouGov) have no idea the block is on its way. The first they’ll know of it is when they’re asked for ID.
Now listen to Lara Prendergast discuss the ethics of banning porn with Robert Jackman. Also joining is Julie Bindel, a feminist campaigner and anti-porn activist, and Miles Jackman, an obscenity lawyer specialising in the porn industry: (15:50)