Wednesday, 8 April 2015

The Tories want mandatory age restrictions on porn sites

Culture Secretary Sajid Javid said that the Conservative party would ensure that porn can only be seen by over-18s.

I’m not sure I understand why.  The porn industry certainly has problems.  There are surely sex workers being exploited in one way or another and the depictions of sex – and especially of women – are often severely problematic.  But these are not problems that relate only to a youthful audience.  I’m concerned that young people might be developing both unrealistic expectations of sex and unpleasant and damaging attitudes toward sexual partners or potential partners and, again, especially toward women.  But I’m not sure that age restrictions on porn sites will necessarily help that.  It strikes me that a foundation in understanding sex, and relationships and respecting people, coupled with a critical examination of porn might be the way to go here.

But the issues more pertinent to this blog are, of course: can it be done? And what privacy/security problems will such a measure inevitably introduce?

First, it’s pretty clear that it couldn’t be done. The Tories want to implement a regulatory scheme that applies to sites both in the UK and abroad.  It’s hard to imagine why any other country would comply; doing so would seem to imply that they implement new legislation, policy and policing.  That sounds expensive and the UK is hardly in a position to bribe or bully anyone into doing that.  No doubt they want to implement technological solutions, too.  We already know that blacklists and whitelists don’t work, are very costly and generally not all that difficult to get around altogether.

And second, they’d need to implement some way of establishing age, which is to say, identity.  Perhaps the most benign approach would be age verification by credit card.  There are some problems, though.  Porn sites must be trusted with a user’s credit card details.  Second, most credit cards are associated with an individual.  Governments might compel porn companies to reveal details of their customers for flimsy and potentially dangerous reasons.

A national ID scheme might be introduced (indeed, this is already underway in the UK) whereby independent yet trustworthy parties verify the age of individuals on request.  The ‘independent’ part shouldn’t fool anyone, though. It certainly wouldn’t imply that the government couldn’t and wouldn’t insist on access to their customer records including who they provided a verified age for and on what sites. 

The same thing could be done without government involvement: sites could accept age verification by a number of trusted providers.  In theory, this could be carried out anonymously.  We’d have to prove somehow to the trusted party that we were old enough (using documents or by physically turning up at their offices). The company need not record anything about our identities, so long as its internal processes were satisfied.  But this is likely to be inconvenient for users and unacceptable for government since there is no transparency.  And it would probably be fairly easy to game that system in practice.

So whichever way the Tories intend to go about it we know that (1) it won’t work, (2) it will fuck with our privacy and (3) the actual benefits are unclear.  This does not seem a very good basis on which to implement a policy.

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