UK porn block: What is it and will it work? © Getty Images

UK porn block: What is it and will it work?

The proposed age verification scheme aims to protect children from viewing pornography, but will it work?

What is the proposed UK porn block?

Although commonly referred to as a ‘porn block’ or ‘porn ban’, the legislation should more accurately be called an age restriction for pornographic material. Once the appropriate section of the Digital Economy Act 2017 comes fully into force, websites and apps providing pornographic material will be required to verify that users are over 18 before allowing access.

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There are a few conditions on this. First of all, the regulations only apply if the website is distributing the material ‘on a commercial basis’: that is, if they earn money or other benefits, such as through advertising, even if the material itself is free for users. As well as this, the regulations won’t apply if adult material makes up less than a third of all content on the website.

Any website or app that doesn’t comply with the regulations faces a fine of up to £250,000 or being blocked by UK internet service providers.

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When is the porn block coming into force?

The block is likely to come into force by 21 April 2019. Margot James, the Minister of State for Digital and the Creative Industries, announced in November 2018 that “We expect it to be in force by Easter of next year.”

However, it has already been delayed several times since it was originally supposed to come into effect in April 2018. Most recently, it was supposed to take hold from 1 April 2019, and before that, the date was set for the end of 2018.

Why was the porn block proposed?

The porn block aims to protect children and adolescents from the harmful effects of seeing pornography before they are ready. In 2012, a team of researchers reviewed the studies into the effect that viewing pornography online has on adolescents, finding a link between adolescent porn use and sexually aggressive behaviour.

Dr Victoria Nash, Deputy Director of the Oxford Internet Institute, says that while the link is scientifically hard to prove, it does appear that viewing pornography has negative effects on young people.

“The suggestion is that it might have harmful consequences in relation to things like attitudes to sexual relationships, their understanding of sexual acts, attitudes towards women, attitudes towards violent sex or aggressive sexual behaviour,” she tells us.

Currently, parents can choose to filter adult content through tools provided by their internet service providers, but these can be shockingly ineffective: a study conducted by Nash and Andrew Przybylski found that between 17 and 77 households would have to use filters to stop a single adolescent from finding sexual material online.

How will the porn block work?

Websites will have to put their own measures into place to verify their users’ age. One way that users can do this will involve uploading their passport, driving licence or credit card information, although many websites are expected to use a single sign-on service such as AgeID – whose parent company MindGeek owns a selection of popular pornographic websites – which verifies the owner of an account is of a legal age through a third-party verification service.

Alternatively, users may be able to buy a ‘porn pass’ from a newsagent. This way, none of their information is stored online, and they can access adult content by entering a code provided on the pass.

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Can you bypass the porn block?

The age verification system is not impenetrable, and any tech-savvy teenager could get around the block to access pornographic websites by using a virtual private network, or VPN. A VPN replaces a user’s IP address, which is their computer’s unique identifier.

Originally, VPNs were developed to allow users to connect to a company’s private network remotely, so employees can work without physically being in the office. However, the technology can also be used to make a device appear to be located in a different country.

Warning Message on a Computer Screen © Getty Images
When age verification comes into effect,  a warning message will not be the only barrier to accessing pornography in the UK © Getty Images

On top of that, there will be websites, such as Reddit and Twitter, with less than one-third pornographic content that children and adolescents can still access without verifying their age, and illegal peer-to-peer sharing can spread content around the underage.

However, that’s not to say that it’s not worth doing. “I think it will work, on one level, and I think it is justified on that basis,” says Nash. “I think it will work primarily to prevent accidental access to pornographic content, or even, perhaps, to deter half-hearted efforts to see that sort of material.”

What are the risks of the porn block?

There is the potential that parents, especially those who are less technologically-minded, might not realise that there are ways around the age verification. “It might lull parents or educators into a false sense of security,” says Nash. “I think it needs to be accompanied by continued public education for children and parents.”

The age verification process itself is a source of privacy concerns. “You have a scenario where very sensitive personal information around sexual proclivities, sexual interests, might be held alongside age verification identifying information,” Nash explains. “Thus, if a database is hacked, you could very easily identify individuals and release information about their sexual interests.”

Amy Shepherd, Legal and Policy Officer at digital campaigning organisation Open Rights Group, believes that the companies which carry out age verification could put users at risk. “Companies such as MindGeek which owns both AV (age verification) technology and mainstream porn sites have a direct commercial interest in tracking people across the web in order to monetise their porn habits,” she said in an email.

“There’s a real risk that AV companies will store sensitive information in online databases, which will inevitably be at risk of hacks or leaks. No AV company can completely guarantee its customers’ privacy, and if sexual information becomes public it can be devastating.”

Update (08/04/19): AgeID contacted us by email after this article was published stating “AgeID does not track users, which was independently assessed and confirmed by cyber security firm, NCC Group. We can categorically confirm that browsing data will not be stored by AgeID.”

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