Open Rights Group has got to know a disastrous policy when it sees it. Back in 2010, during the last Digital Economy Bill, music companies demanded that people be cut off the Internet after “three strikes” if they were accused of file sharing.
Even then, it was clear that this was a disproportionate response that wouldn’t bring any of the supposed benefits.
“Three strikes” and disconnection was never put into action. It crashed and burned, and everyone does their best to forget it.
Now, I am experiencing a strong sense of déja vu. The new incarnation of the Digital Economy Bill starts with a real concern, that children can access pornography online, and puts forward a ‘modest proposal”. This is a deserving group whose interests are indisputably important.
Javed Khan, from Barnados, writes in the Huffington Post that:
"We have always found it surprising that such a moderate adjustment in policy could be so controversial. After all, no-one is suggesting that pornography should be banned or even made off limits for consenting adults. Instead we are simply asking for laws online to more closely mirror protections we put in place in the offline world. These would prevent children accidentally coming into contact with inappropriate or disturbing material. "
Unfortunately, that is exactly what the Bill is proposing, and worse besides. As with the previous bill, the proposed cures that create even more problems, and won’t deliver the intended benefits.
As context, around half of the adult population access online pornography - around 25 million UK adults. A large proportion of women as well as men visit such sites. This is legal material, and it is clearly everyone’s right to access. Around 70% of homes are occupied just by adults, while 30% of homes include children.
The proposed measures seek to stop children from accessing pornography by compelling websites to verify the age of their users, and then to block everyone from accessing websites that don’t comply with this.
Under the Bill, the BBFC will be charged with checking that Age Verification tools are in place, and is now being given a power to censor websites without even having to seek a court order.
It is clear that the power is therefore aimed at widescale blocking. How wide is harder to know, but it is reasonable to guess that out of the millions of pornographic websites available, only a tiny fraction will take up Age Verification. Even if these are the “big” tube sites, with many users, quite a lot would have to be blocked to have any serious impact on the “availability” of pornography to under 18s. That will of course equally have the same impact on adults wanting to access those sites.In any case, it is unclear that the UK should be engaging in massive censorship of legal content.
We expect sexual minorities to be particular victims of this censorship. This could include people whose sexual identity is less common in the UK, or for instance disabled people. People from these groups often want to see pornography with people who share their identity. Sites that cater to these audiences are usually smaller and may find implementing age verification technology too expensive and find they have to shut down, leaving sexual minorities without pornography that they actually want.
Moving back to age verification itself, this is a very hard problem to solve. In this case, it needs to private, near anonymous, trustworthy, easy to use and very cheap. It’s a tall order.
Yet the Bill fails to regulate privacy at all. There are no safeguards for privacy, anoymity or security. Age verification tools could easily end up creating vast data leaks, revealing people’s viewing history, or else aid criminal fraud by encouraging people to share their personal data or credit card details with unknown websites.
Child protection advocates want answers that solve the problem of what children access online. Yet I don’t think it is plausible to remove the very wide-ranging risks to young people from the open internet. Attempts to do are likely to fail. Rather, their access needs to be mediated by those that care for them. Education needs to be provided, and above all, children need time to discuss their online experiences with responsible adults. The measures in the Digital Economy Bill, however, are likely to either fail, harm, or end up in an enormous mess that everyone will be wishing they’d never started.