In Brief

UK porn block hit by further delays

Government officials failed to inform European Commission of key details

The Government’s controversial plan to introduce ID checks to prevent under-18s in the UK from accessing pornography websites is to be delayed indefinitely.

Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright will make a statement to the Commons today confirming that owing an “administrative error”, the launch of the scheme has been pushed back from 15 July, The Daily Telegraph reports. The rollout of age checks on legal adult sites had already been postponed from April last year.

The Guardian says that the latest cancellation is is down to legal issues, “after government officials failed to notify the European Commission of key details” of the policy.

The Telegraph adds that the failure to implement the age checks is a “blow for the Government”, which has “hailed the scheme as the first of its kind in the world and as a model that could be followed by other countries”.

The measure, aimed at protecting children from accessing X-rated videos and images, was part of the Digital Economy Act 2017 and would force porn websites to implement “robust” age checks on users accessing their content from the UK.

The policy would have required all adult internet users seeking to watch legal porn online to prove they are over 18 by providing identification.

“Websites that refused to implement the checks face being blocked by UK internet service providers or having their access to payment services withdraw,” says The Guardian.

Although the measure could affect an estimated 35 million people, surveys have repeatedly shown the vast majority of the British public are unaware of the possible changes.

What is the Digital Economy Act?

The Bill, which passed into law in 2017 with little fanfare, covers a wide range of issues governing media regulation and access to online content.

The law expands the remit of the communications regulator Ofcom; affects how public and commercial broadcasters can operate; and increases sentencing options for copyright infringements online, says The Hollywood Reporter.

What about porn?

The most controversial provisions cover plans to regulate and restrict access to online pornography in the UK.

The Bill gives authorities the power to block any website deemed to be adult in nature. It effectively means all adult websites in the UK will be blocked by default, and only accessible via age verification, to prove a user is over 18.

First set out in the 2015 Conservative election manifesto, and pushed through under the radar by Theresa May’s government, the aim of the checks is to better police the internet and prevent children “stumbling” upon explicit content.

What does the new age-verification scheme entail?

Under the law, any site deemed to be adult in nature will require users to sign up to an age-verification programme in order to log in and access the site’s content.

This involves handing over identifying information, such as passport, driving licence or credit card details.

MindGeek - a company that owns several of the internet’s most popular pornographic websites including Pornhub, RedTube and YouPorn - has developed an AgeID system which is expected to become the standard model for the majority of explicit sites.

Under the system, attempting to reach one of these sites from a UK device would bring up an age verification landing page instead.

James Clark, AgeID spokesman, told Metro that “each website will create their own non-pornographic landing page for this purpose”.

“The first time they visit, users will have to create an AgeID account by verifying their ID, with an email and password. The user verifies their email address and then chooses an age verification option from our list of third-party providers, using options such as mobile SMS, credit card, passport or driving licence,” he said.

According to The Independent, the person’s age will be checked by a third-party company, with users then given a “secure login for all future access”.

For users uneasy about handing over their personal details, there would be a second option. With a passport or driving licence, over-18s would be able to purchase a special PortesCard voucher from selected high-street retailers and any of the UK’s 29,000 PayPoint outlets.

“Using this method, a customer does not need to register an email address, and can simply access the site using the Portes app,” says Clark.

The cards would cost £4.99 for use on one device and £8.99 for multiple devices. However, once a card or voucher were purchased, its unique validation code would need to be activated via the Portes app within 24 hours before expiring.

Who will decide what is and isn’t porn?

Controversially, the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), the UK’s film regulator, has been tasked with deciding what classifies as adult content.

The BBFC would also be responsible for ensuring adult websites have age verification checks and would have the power to fine those that do not.

The board told The Guardian that it would be required to check if websites contain the kind of pornographic content it would normally refuse to classify.

“In practice, that means that R18 – the BBFC’s most liberal classification, applied to pornographic works that can be shown in licensed cinemas or sold in licensed sex shops only, to adults only – will be the benchmark for what is acceptable,” says the paper.

The Sun reports that “sites face fines of up to £250,000 or a blanket block by UK internet service providers if they do not comply with the rules”. Regulators would also be able to block porn websites if they failed to show that they were denying access to under-18s.

Why has it proved so controversial?

The average age of a child’s first exposure to pornography is just 11 years old, “so it is understandable that 83% of parents recently polled by the not-for-profit organisation Internet Matters support age-verification on commercial porn sites” writes Arwa Mahdawi in The Guardian.

But while many may welcome this move as a way to safeguard those under the age of 18 from accessing adult content, “some argue that the tool could be wrongly used to breach the privacy of internet users”, says the Independent.

Lawyer Myles Jackman told The Sun there are serious dangers associated with the scheme.

“The big risk is that the data from the user is not held securely, and that their privacy is violated when that data is hacked or breached,” he said, adding that a breach is “ridiculously likely to happen”, and will affect huge swathes of the UK population.

Given revelations about how personal data from Facebook has been harvested by third-party firms, many opposed to the Bill have said the risk of someone’s personal porn history being hacked and then used to blackmail individuals is enormous.

The New Scientist says “there is also uncertainty as to whether the restrictions will be able to prevent children from accessing pornography, as they don’t apply to social media platforms that contain pornographic content, such as Twitter”.

“The age block will be ridiculously easy to bypass – and if anyone knows how to circumvent restrictions, it’s a teenager” says Mahdawi.

In addition, the Government itself has noted the block would push people towards private networks such as the anonymous Tor brower, “which is often used to surf the dark web, and may also have the unintended consequence of exposing people ‘to illegal activities and more extreme material," she adds.

What about porn companies themselves?

There are also concerns that the scheme could give the world’s biggest porn publisher a monopoly and access to data similar to that of Facebook and Twitter.

The problem, say privacy groups, is that the BBFC draft guidance passes all responsibility for regulating the privacy and security of the services to the Information Commissioner’s Office, “with no specific security rules to be applied in the sector”, says The Guardian.

There would also be no legal requirement for sites to offer users a choice of age verification services.

Critics of the scheme say this could allow MindGeek, which controls most of the world’s online porn traffic and has developed its own age verification service, to corner the market.

Jim Killock, the executive director of Open Rights Group, told the Guardian the draft guidance would make MindGeek the “Facebook of porn”, with vast amounts of data on users’ viewing habits.

“These are the two key points,” Killock said. “There is no requirement for user choice and there is no requirement for any privacy to be higher than the General Data Protection Regulation. Basically, they are washing their hands and hoping the market will sort it out.”

Shouldn’t more people be aware of the upcoming changes?

Many industry insiders have said the lack of awareness or public debate about the imminent changes is also worrying.

A survey last summer by AVSecure, an age verification software company, found 66% of UK adults were not aware of the new rules, and it appears little has changed since then.

AVSecure CEO, Stuart Lawley, told the Sun: “The lack of knowledge amongst the general public about the pending age verification requirements for adult content should be alarming, especially to the Government.”

Alastair Graham, of AgeChecked, another age verification firm, told the BBC that he was surprised there had not been more public debate around the new rule, especially given “it will affect 20 to 34 million people in the UK”.

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