THE BLOG

Limiting Children's Access to Porn Online

17/02/2016 10:25 GMT | Updated 16/02/2017 10:12 GMT

There's a world of difference between a nine-year old accidentally stumbling on an explicit clip of unsimulated violent sex, and a 15-year old seeking out videos that help them understand their sexual feelings or identity. The fact that children are accessing porn is no surprise but there is a need for more debate about how to address this. The UK government commissioned a group of academics to look into this issue and our co-authored report accompanies a new government consultation seeking feedback on some possible measures.

At first sight, this might seem an odd topic for a consultation - given that there are already several laws which prohibit serving pornographic content to minors, surely there's little need to discuss the means by which this is controlled? However, as with so many areas of Internet policy, the challenges of finding a proportionate and workable approach mean that eliciting public support is an important step in crafting effective measures. Given that in this case we are talking about restricting access to a form of content which is, apart from the most extreme forms, perfectly legal for adults to access, there is a particular need to get feedback in the earliest stages.

Under current UK legislation it is illegal for UK proprietors to sell or distribute pornographic content to anyone under 18 years of age. In the offline context, this has meant that materials rated R18 by the British Board of Film Classification can only be sold through licensed sex shops. In the online environment, such gate-keeping is more difficult to enforce. As our report for the UK Department of Media, Culture and Sport makes clear, there are a huge number of ways in which pornographic content could be found online. The most obvious sources are the major 'tube sites' offering free content, often directing users towards sites offering paid-for or subscription content. But given the ease with which content can be copied, created and exchanged, it's also easily accessible via sites offering pirated content, or even social media sites, not all of which which forbid users from posting such content. Then there's the tricky matter of jurisdiction. As The Economist noted last year, the most popular sites accessed by UK Internet users are predominantly hosted overseas. However, regulations governing video on demand services don't currently apply to producers based outside the UK.

The studies we reported on include evidence that the most common sources of sexual content for children between 9 and 16 years are a mix of more traditional sources (TV, films and magazines, which may be hard copy or online) and online-only sources such as video and photo-sharing sites, pop-up adverts and social networks. In the face of such an array of ways to find porn online, it would be easy to do nothing. Instead, today's consultation suggests that a good first step is to target commercial providers of pornography. 'Follow the money' as the saying goes. Under current proposals, these companies will be required to ensure that their content is not available without appropriate age verification. Not just a tick-box stating 'I am over 18' or a request to enter your date of birth, but a way of verifying age that requires some external form of proof. Commercial pornography providers who don't do this may face penalties imposed by a regulator or might find their payment providers or advertisers withdraw support.

It's already being pointed out that these proposals won't stop children accessing pornography online, or that we're seeing dangerous forms of 'localisation and effective censorship' of the web. But what's the alternative? Short of shutting down the Internet, no single policy measure or even set of measures is going to stop children from finding porn online. Surely it's better to set in place a suite of measures that help protect children whilst still allowing adults to legally access legal pornography when it suits them? Policy and regulation also promotes debate and communicates values. Focusing on the biggest online porn providers sends a clear message that if you're going to make money out of this stuff, then you need to act responsibly. In an ideal world, this would also be the start of a wider societal debate: one where we question whether we're really happy with the increasing sexualisation of modern culture, and how best to prepare our kids for this. Perhaps even one where we expect all secondary schools to teach teenagers not just about sex and relationships, but how to deal with the sensationalised and fictional portrayal of these in TV, films and music videos as well as porn. We can but try.