The Not Scientist and others

On Tuesday the UK Government finally announced the trigger date (15th July) for those parts of the Digital Economy Act, 2017 which require commercial pornography sites to ensure persons under the age of 18 are not able to view their wares. For years the porn companies said they didn’t want kids looking at their stuff but refused to do anything meaningful to make it real. Seemingly that was someone’s else’s responsibility.  Those days are over.

The new law heralds the introduction of robust age verification for commercial porn. One way of looking at this is as an attempt, an experiment, to see if we can apply, in cyberspace,  the same or analogous rules that we routinely apply and accept in the physical world. I think we can and we should. Most certainly we should try. The internet is the home of innovation. This is innovation.

Smirking all the way to the bank

The UK’s laws and conventions surrounding children’s access to porn are not dissimilar to those in a great many, I believe the vast majority, of other liberal democracies. Anyone who thinks those laws and conventions are bad, wrong or ill-advised is at liberty to make the case and try to get them changed. However,  in the UK at least, for as long as we have such rules and expectations it is completely unacceptable for offshore companies to smirk all the way to the bank as they knowingly and persistently take advantage of the failure, hitherto, of national governments and of international institutions to find a way to make rules bite in circumstances such as these.

Call it another failure of self-regulation.  This is what prompted the UK to act. We are seeking to give our rules bite. We are following the money, with a reserve power to block access if necessary. If we can show it works other countries will follow. A great many are watching closely.

No rebuttal

Anyway for whatever reason, between the Act being passed and this week, there was no systematic rebuttal effort or major public information campaign explaining how the age verification rules would operate. Given the inordinate delay, attributable to Brexit blockage as much as anything, this has proved to be extremely unfortunate.

I don’t have a problem with people being sceptical about anything that emanates from Government, it would be worrying if they weren’t, but what we have witnessed here is something altogether different. Individuals and groups who, from  Day 1, were ideologically opposed to the very notion of trying to  regulate pornography, or had a vested interest in the status quo, have had a clear run at attacking the proposed new regime, telling what can only be described as “lies” or, if one was feeling generous, at least speaking in a way which suggests they have not been paying attention. Maybe their blinkers or closed minds were getting in the way.

For example

A few months ago I did the PM Programme on BBC  Radio 4. I was on with the Editor of Computer Which magazine. She told us her background was in journalism and then proceeded to announce to the world that, in fact, the whole plan to launch age verification had already been abandoned because the Government discovered it couldn’t actually work.

The BBC journalist presiding let it pass because they, rather obviously, knew nothing about the subject. Trumpian alternative facts were having an outing in unexpected quarters. It was left to me, self-evidently on one side of the argument, to tell the listeners this was simply not true.

Things like this have been happening a lot and for this I blame, at least in part, the Open Rights Group. (ORG). Their first press release on the subject of the (then) Digital Economy Bill said it would “outlaw erotica”. A blatant falsehood. I’m having difficulty now finding that press release to provide a link to it. I wonder why? But just to be clear: nothing legal today becomes illegal after the new law comes into effect. Shall I repeat that or find another way of expressing the idea so there can be no doubt about its meaning or intent?

OK, all kinds of crazy things get said by campaigning bodies with a declared agenda and on a live programme it can be difficult to step in, particularly when the clock is running down. But aren’t we entitled to expect professional journalists to check the facts? Is it OK to regurgitate uncritically a campaigning group’s press release and still claim to be engaged in journalism? No, and definitely not in the case of a journalistic outlet operating outside the pressures of 24/7  news reporting.

Which, sadly, brings me to the “New Scientist” (I am a subscriber, as indeed I am to Which). Or rather it brings me to the “Not Scientist”.

Baloney wearing a cloak of verisimilitude (look it up)

In the edition of 30th March, one James Ball wrote a piece called “No Porn Please We’re British”.  It is behind a pay-wall so I cannot provide a link to the whole article although there is a connection to a promotional item associated with it.

Here are some verbatim extracts from Mr Ball’s piece.

“The day-to-day implementation of the UK’s age-verification scheme is being managed by AgeID, a subsidiary of MindGeek”.   Wrong. MindGeek is the world’s largest publisher of online porn so if the claim was true, at first sight this would be alarming.

But it isn’t true. Not by a very long shot.

If anyone can be said to be “managing the day-to-day implementation” of the new regime wouldn’t it be, er, the Regulator,  namely the BBFC? The idea that it might be in the hands of a single private company which, in turn is a subsidiary of a porn company is……… Well, you tell me what that is.

I have just learned that, on 10th April, in the online version of the article the New Scientist printed a “clarification” of the status of AgeID. Good but not good enough in respect of something of such obvious importance to the whole story.

More non facts

So far, the only major provider (of age verification solutions) is MindGeek. Quoth Ball.

Wrong again.  I  now know of about ten providers and there will be more by the time of the commencement.  True enough I don’t know what Ball meant by “major”. He doesn’t explain but it is clear what he wants to imply. Do your homework Mr Ball and the Editor should do some fact-checking before pressing the print button.

In correspondence the New Scientist prayed in aid that The Independent  said something similar.  Good to know they sub-contract out these matters in that way. I’ll see if I can get an Indie reporter to say the Earth is flat.

Phew what a whopper!

Then there’s this one, maybe the biggest of them all.

“Campaigners characterise the AgeID verification process as creating a UK-wide database of adults accessing pornography with no additional legal safeguards….”

If any “campaigners” did believe what Ball says they believe it can only be because they have not read or understood the law or the policy, or else they are choosing to misrepresent it.

Why didn’t Ball take the opportunity to point out these “campaigners” were getting it wrong, if only to reassure readers? Why didn’t the Editor step in? That’s what the New Scientist does all the time elsewhere on other subjects. In the name of the scientific method it loftily reprimands sloppy journalism. Not here.

We have privacy laws and an independent privacy regulator

Our privacy laws are essentially the GDPR rules, enforced by our independent privacy regulator. Under them, unless you give express consent, an age verification provider is legally barred from passing on any information about you to anyone else, other than  to confirm that you are above 18. “Anyone else” includes even a sister company or another part of the same company. A business cannot collect data for one purpose then use it for something else.

A porn site does not need to know your name, credit card details or anything else in order to decide whether or not you can see their stuff. All it needs to know is  “Has the account presenting here been reliably verified as  belonging to someone over 18?”  

Once through the age verification gate, if a person deals directly with a porn site and chooses to give them personal information or it uses a credit card to buy something, that is another matter entirely, nothing to do with the rules on age verification.  What profiles have porn companies been building up to now that went without comment or demur? If anything, the new regime could deliver even greater privacy, not less.

A hackable national UK-wide database?

For there to be a UK-wide database, the AV companies would have to work together to construct it. Not only is that a ridiculous idea and an  illegal proposition it is also an impossibility. Why?

Several large (major?) AV providers have made clear that, once the verification process has been completed they will not retain any data about you so even if they were hacked there would be nothing to find and their systems are anyway heavily encrypted. Comparisons with Ashley Madison are scaremongering. Pure and simple.

The New Scientist  should not be helping in that disreputable task.

Rather I would have thought the magazine should welcome the bravery, the vision and the motivation behind what is, I say again, an experiment. A British experiment that is part of a mosaic of measures all geared to the same end. Helping children grow up to be healthy, well-adjusted adults. Will it keep all porn away from all under-18s? Unlikely, but it will most certainly work well enough keep graphic sexual imagery away from the eyes of 9 year olds. That will be a triumph and shame on the porn companies for not doing it voluntarily. They could have done.

The New Scientist should give equal prominence to another article which sets out more fully and accurately what is going on.

About John Carr

John Carr is one of the world's leading authorities on children's and young people's use of digital technologies. He is Senior Technical Adviser to Bangkok-based global NGO ECPAT International and is Secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. John is now or has formerly been an Adviser to the Council of Europe, the UN (ITU), the EU and UNICEF. John has advised many of the world's largest technology companies on online child safety. John's skill as a writer has also been widely recognised.
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