The Digital Economy Bill is nearing the end of its passage through the House of Commons. When the Bill becomes law the UK will have an Age Verification Regulator (AVR). It will be the British Board of Film Classification , a trusted, respected, independent organization, over 100 years old, and well versed in making decisions about how to describe or classify different types of content in the interests of protecting children.
The AVR will be able to require commercial pornography publishers to introduce age verification so as to ensure persons under the age of 18 will not normally be able to view their wares. Among other things this will catch the so-called “free” sites which, in reality, are highly commercial. Failure to comply with the age verification rules could attract a fine of £250,000 or 5% of the business’s turnover, whichever is the greater. Suppliers of ancillary services e.g. payments providers and advertisers are expected to cut off persistently non-compliant sites.
However, since all of the main sites are based overseas what if they just ignored the fine and found other ways of collecting revenues?
Last night the UK Government announced it will table an amendment to the Digital Economy Bill giving the AVR the power to mandate ISPs and other access providers to block persistently non-compliant commercial pornography sites. This mirrors what we do already with copyright infringing sites as well as sites containing child abuse images and terrorist materials.
In making this announcement the Government can be heartily congratulated on fulfilling its 2015 Manifesto pledge.
The misinformation and hysteria of the measure’s opponents has plumbed new depths of irresponsibility. For example, anyone who bothered to read the Bill will see no sex education web site will be closed down or blocked as a result of this measure. Neither will small or amateur, non-commercial sites be affected. When everything has calmed down and we have had a chance to see that nobody’s free speech rights have been curtailed maybe we can revisit the issue.
In reality all the Government is doing is legislating to make it possible to enforce what is already the law of England. Here is an extract from the Crown Prosection Service web site. It contains advice issued following the decision in the Court of Criminal Appeals in R v Perrin.
where children are likely to access material of a degree of sexual explicitness equivalent to what is available to those aged 18 and above in a licensed sex shop, that material may be considered to be obscene and subject to prosecution. This applies to material which is not behind a suitable payment barrier or other accepted means of age verification, for example, material on the front page of pornography websites….. EWCA Crim 747 .
The problem has been because the overwhelming majority of pornography sites are based overseas there was no practical way in which our law could be made to stick. Since Perrin there have been zero prosecutions of overseas pornography web sites for failure to comply with age related rules. The Digital Economy Bill simply introduces a regime which can work in a very straightforward and practical way that is well understood by everyone in the internet industry and is easy to explain to others.
The ironic or paradoxical outcome of the new age verification regime is that porn users’ privacy will in future be even better protected than it is now.