In response to the British Parliament creating ‘a new requirement in law’, a flurry of news articles surfaced to discuss what age-verification measures for porn sites might look like. The implementation of this UK law sees pornography sites fined and blocked by ISPs if they fail to implement robust age-verification processes for their users by April 2018.
Opponents to this move are quick to point out potential implications for the privacy of internet users, namely porn users. It is important to understand how age-verification measures benefit children, and why the myths presented in opposition are easily dispelled.
Supporter of the Digital Economy Act, Secretary of the Children’s Charities Coalition on Internet Safety, John Carr, was recently interviewed on BBC radio alongside Miles Jackman, a campaigner against internet censorship. John provides excellent information to clarify details about a move that is designed to protect children from ready access to hardcore graphic online pornography. The interview commences at 36 minutes and 52 seconds, and John also published a blog to provide further insight.
Myth 1: Free porn sites will ask for user's credit card details
John Carr eloquently states that anybody who gives their credit card to a porn site is a fool. He goes on to say that all porn sites will need to know is one single piece of information:
Have you been reliably verified by a trustworthy third-party, to be over 18?
A porn site does not need to know the user's name, age, address or anything else. Once verified by a third-party source, internet users will have a ‘digital token’ or ‘digital ID’ that can be presented to the porn sites as proof of age. Porn sites are not privy to who it is that is presenting that ‘digital ID’.
John explains that “the truth is, this measure could be privacy enhancing for a great many people who want to view porn”. In the UK, it will be up to the privacy commissioner to monitor who the trustworthy verifiers are, and they will be subject to the same laws that every other data-collector is subjected to.
Myth 2: The data collected could be hacked and used for blackmail
Data is collected daily across all manner of platforms on the internet, which is why privacy laws have been created to protect personal information. Data hacking, although a real possibility, is a risk faced by any user of the Internet. Online Internet Banking, Social Security Services, Online Shopping Carts and Census Data Collection are all spaces where personal information is collected. In Australia, the Privacy Act is enforced by the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) - an independent statutory agency.
Porn sites will not have direct access to the data collected to verify the age of the user. Similarly, it seems that trusted verifiers will not have direct knowledge of which sites the ‘verified user’ then accesses with their ‘digital ID’. John expands on this further in his blog and says that "empty scaremongering" is being used to suggest that the age-verification process would result in user’s personal information, sexual practices and preferences being shared online.
Myth 3: Kids are smart and they will easily get around the controls
According to a report by OFCOM in November 2016, 12-15 year olds were marginally more likely than in 2015 to say they had deleted their history records (17% vs. 11%); amended the settings to use a web browser in privacy mode (10% vs. 6%); and disabled any filters or controls (3% vs. 1%). This means that 97% of kids don’t know how or have not bothered to disable filters.
Getting around any filter or restriction using a VPN, proxy or TOR, is a choice by the user. Statistically, this is RARELY carried out by minors. Remembering that age-verification is not the same as filtering, and its implementation is designed to protect children, it is lunacy to continue to believe the myth that kids will ‘easily get around the controls’.
Myth 4: Suppliers of Pornography are not responsible for access to content
Do we say bottle shops, pubs and clubs are not responsible for ensuring their customers are over 18? Or that cigarette retailers don’t need to verify the age of the purchaser? Or that it’s okay for adult stores to allow children to enter? Retailers providing a product that, by law, is deemed illegal for consumption by minors, must do everything possible to ensure that only adults access their product.
We have age-verification in movie theatres with R+ movies. Given that all porn content is R+ rating or higher, it is well overdue to bring the porn industry into line with other control measures in place to protect children.
Myth 5: The focus should be on schools’ education - it’s a better solution than age-verification
Education is an incredibly important aspect of this discussion. Education about pornography as a public health crisis must extend to children, youth, parents, professionals, and government & community leaders. However, Porn Harms Kids Chair, Liz Walker, says that in her experience educating within schools, “it’s going to take a massive amount of government insistence and targeted resources for schools to effectively educate about the harms of pornography.”
Schools are naturally nervous to approach this topic and are still grappling with what approach to take. Liz goes on to explain that “schools need policies in place to effectively manage an incident of one child showing another child pornography at school; robust measures to manage incidents of when this viewing causes another child trauma; and educational resources to educate children as young as five years old on how to report troubling images to safe adults. In my experience, schools are years away from actually carrying this out, and every day that children have ready access to hardcore online pornography compounds the issues arising from this access. It is a matter of urgent child protection to prevent, what is essentially, child sexual abuse through images.”
Age-verification is a Digital Child Protection Buffer that has the potential to create a greater level of safety for our children in the current technological environment. Free and easy access to graphic and extreme content is not acceptable. John Carr states it this way:
“...it is not a binary choice. Educating children and young people about sex, sexuality and relationships have 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.”
John Carr finalises his update in a practical, no-nonsense way, and is summarised here:
Age-verification measures say to porn publishers that it is not okay to just put stuff out there, profit from it and take no responsibility for keeping it away from audiences who are harmed from it, and do not have the maturity to process or deal with it. Even though filters exist, you, as a porn publisher, have to do your bit to help.
The adult world (that’s us), have for a long time, said to children and young people that they should stay away from porn. It is unrealistic, disrespectful of women, violent, damaging, and so on. Yet there have been no real attempts to put up any kinds of barriers till now. This action shows we mean it, and are going to try to make it stick, just like other areas of importance such as curbing terrorism; or production and distribution of child sexual 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.
Age-verification measures to prevent access to porn sites by children is one component of the Digital Child Protection Buffers advocated for by Porn Harms Kids. If you would like to see porn site age-verification implemented in Australia, add your name to the Porn Harms Kids pledge and spread the word. Our kids deserve a world where children can grow up without being psychologically harmed by accessing graphic, violent pornography online.