As I would have said….

Yesterday I appeared on BBC Radio 4’s “World at One”, the current affairs lunchtime slot. If you download the podcast you’ll find the interview starts at 36 minutes and 55 seconds.

Why was there a story in the first place? That was because yesterday the Government, in the form of Matt Hancock, announced the formal commencement of the Digital Economy Act, 2017.  Bravo! Hancock suggested the age verification elements will be up and running by April next year. That sounds a tad ambitious but let’s hope it’s right.

I was on the BBC to discuss the age verification part of the Act, debating with a representative of the Open Rights Group (ORG).

I am glad the ORG exists. There is no doubt they do valuable and important work, campaigning to safeguard our civil liberties and freedoms across a broad front. I was delighted to hear them say they have no objection in principle to the idea of age verification being used for the purposes of protecting children. This would have been a little more convincing if, from the moment the Bill was published, the ORG had not opposed anything and everything to do with the idea.

I have no complaints whatsoever about the interview on the BBC. It was absolutely fine. It was, however, quite short and a few people who listened in have asked me if I could respond to some of the points that could not be covered fully in the time available. I will do this in form of bullet points rather than a discursive essay.

  • “Educating children about pornography and putting it in context as part of a wider discussion of relationships is better than throwing technology at the problem”.
  • It is ironic that in relation to the internet – this supremely technical environment which has facilitated if not created the difficulty to begin with – the idea of using technology to solve it is a no-no.
  • However, it is not a binary choice. Educating children and young people about sex, sexuality and relationships has always been important and, if anything, the arrival of the internet has made it even more so. For this reason, I very much welcomed the announcement earlier this year that sex education is to be made a compulsory part of the national curriculum. But you cannot “educate” a 9-year-old girl out of the horror of witnessing or being exposed to some of the stuff that is readily available on many of the sites that will be caught by the Digital Economy Act.
  • Thus, here we will be seeing and testing the extent to which technology can contribute to dealing with the problem. If innovation is the life force of the internet why can’t we innovate here?
  • Very similar arguments were made against the introduction of online age verification to deal with gambling web sites. Guess what? The legislation has worked extremely well and the gulag remains on the far horizon. Kids can no longer just tick a box to say they are 18 then go on a web site and blow their pocket money on the horses.
  • And to say that the porn sites are “free” and therefore the analogy with gambling doesn’t work is nonsense. The so-called “free” porn sites – which are the biggest problem – are highly commercial operations. People just pay in a different way.
  • I cannot think of a single large publisher of porn who has ever said they want children to be able to see their stuff, or even that they don’t care one way or another. It’s just that, as with online gambling, until the law required them to do something concrete to keep kids out few of them did.
  • It was said that “Mindgeek” – the biggest porn business on the planet –  will be collecting personal data on millions of people and it could be hacked, thus revealing information about an individual’s sexual preferences, exposing them to blackmail and so on. In addition, this data can be sold to third parties and exploited in any number of other unsavoury ways – presumably without the informed consent of the data subject.
  • First of all, any business of any kind operating within the UK will have to comply with our privacy laws. This means everything stated as a threat or a worry in the previous paragraph would be illegal and our data protection authority could go after them. I am therefore disinclined to believe that MindGeek would behave in that way and this was just empty scaremongering.
  • However, my guess is individual porn companies will find it hard to persuade would-be customers that handing over personal data of any kind to them is a good idea and what will emerge are trustworthy third parties, backed by or involving highly reputable companies,  who will undertake the age verification task. And remember, unlike with gambling, where anti money laundering rules also apply, here the only thing a porn site needs to know before it admits you is “have you been reliably verified as being over 18”?  The site doesn’t need to know your name, your actual age, address or indeed anything else. So the truth is this measure could be privacy enhancing for a great many people who want to view porn. I am sure the government did not intend to help the porn industry in this way but hey.
  • If someone chooses to buy something from a porn site and they have to hand over their credit card details then that is a matter for them and it is outside the scope of the Digital Economy Act (although not the privacy laws).
  • Technical measures could be used to circumvent the Act e.g. VPNs, proxies and TOR.
  • Similar arguments are used against any kind of filtering. You hear people say “kids are smart they can get around anything”. The implication being there is no point trying so let’s just leave things the way they are.  Cui bono?
  • It is true – kids are smart –   but the overwhelming majority of children and young people do not seek to evade filters and other protective measures. Certainly, as they get older, more may give it a go but even here most young people recognise and respect boundaries of this kind. Moreover if someone was to use a VPN, a proxy or TOR they would hardly be able to claim subsequently that they had got into the porn sites by accident or casually.  This alone will act as a restraint. These alternative routes typically require more than a little technical knowledge, application, and patience.
  • My three final points: our law has established a new normative standard.  We are saying to pornography publishers that, actually, it is not OK for you to just put stuff out there, profit from it and take no responsibility for keeping it away from audiences who you say you don’t want and who do not have the maturity to process or deal with it with, potentially, very harmful, lasting effects. Even though filters are or may be in widespread use you, as a porn publisher, have to do your bit to help. It’s now part of the cost of doing business in the UK.
  • The adult world (that’s us) has for a long time said to children and young people stay away from porn – it is unrealistic –  disrespectful of women, it is  violent and damaging, and so on, but actually we made no real attempt to put up any kinds of barriers to show we were serious about it. Policies such as those embodied in the Digital Economy Act, 2017 show we mean it and we are going to try to make it stick, just like we have done or are doing in other areas e.g.  in relation to copyright theft, terrorism and child abuse images.
  • The internet can claim no special privileges. If something is wrong or prohibited in the physical world then as near as we can it should also apply online otherwise the one undermines the other and in the end renders it meaningless.