At last! Today sees the release of the UK Government’s consultative document on how to bring the publication of pornography on the internet into closer alignment with real world standards. In other words the Government is initiating a discussion about how best to age verify people who visit and view material which the overwhelming majority of porn publishers agree was never meant for them in the first place and which, in the real world, it would be illegal for them to buy. In making this move the Government is doing two highly commendable things
- It is honouring a Manifesto pledge given during the last General Election campaign
- It is embarking on a brave experiment never before attempted in the democratic world
I was part of the working group that helped draft the proposals the whole world can now view and comment upon but I have to say straight away that all the heavy lifting was done by the civil servants. I was hugely impressed by their care and attention to detail. They gathered in evidence of harm, consulted an expert group of academics, engaged with representatives of the online payments industry, the Gambling Commission, age verification solution providers and, of course, the porn industry itself.
The initial reaction from the porn industry has been good. The world’s largest porn provider – Pornhub – said they
will comply fully with any robust legislative and relevant local measures that emerge from this consultation
Pornhub commented further that they were already engaged with trying to create a workable technical solution.
The focus of the consultation is very much on commercial porn providers. These are, after all, the industry leaders. And the so-called “free” sites? Define “free”? But here we hit up against an issue of proportionality. The long tail matters but the great bulk of online porn is NOT being made in garages and bedrooms in suburbia by enthusiasts. Online porn is about money not art, free expression or sex education. It is being produced by an industry that hitherto has been careless of the harm they do, in particular to young people. The UK Government has acted because the porn industry wouldn’t.
Where does Facebook fit into this? It doesn’t. It is true that porn sometimes appears on a great many sites that expressly forbid it. The material is removed as soon as it it is drawn to their attention. The idea that every site should be subject to the same regime because porn might occasionally appear on it – well it’s not even a counsel of perfection. It is either naive or, to revert to Parliamentary language, it is a wrecking amendment. We must not let the best be the enemy of the extremely good.