Verifiably Stupid – The UK Porn Block’s Latest Failure

So, with just weeks to go before the planned July 15th launch, the British government have one again announced a delay to their flagship porn block – this time for six months, taking us to the end of the year.

Various groups have been loudly pointing out that the porn block – sorry, ‘Age Verification System’ – is a sledgehammer to smash a nut, a privacy nightmare waiting to happen and won’t even work, because not only does it fail to take into account VPNs as a workaround but also has so many exemptions (sites like Twitter and Reddit are exempt, as are ‘non-commercial’ porn sites) that it becomes meaningless. The government themselves had admitted as much, but have nevertheless pushed forward with this ludicrous scheme for political reasons, believing – wrongly, I would say – that there are votes to be gained from a moral campaign.

The official reason for the new delay is down to legal reasons – the government had failed to notify the European Commission of important details of the legislation. This will, at least, allow the Tory leadership hopefuls to put the blame on the EU bogeyman, and perhaps even give Brexit supporters another stick to bash Europe with. But frankly, it feels like a handy excuse. The fact is, that with three weeks to go, the much-vaunted age verification systems are mostly untested, concerns about data retention and privacy unanswered and the BBFC, who were tasked with implementing the whole thing despite having next to no experience of internet regulation, are woefully unprepared. At the moment, they do not seem to have classified a single site, and there is no word on how exactly they expect to check up on every porn site in the world, especially as this will be a proactive search on their part rather than companies voluntarily submitting for certification as currently happens with video releases. There is no sign of the Board taking on new staff or having a huge cash injection, so it’s hard to see how they could possibly do anything other than random checks on the most obvious sites (though clearly they have been banking on snitches reporting non-compliant sites).

So, we have legislation that will be almost impossible to enforce in any way other than haphazardly, is a privacy bombshell that could result in costly legal action if there is a data leak (and let’s be fair, this is a blackmailer’s dream come true), and won’t do anything to stop kids looking at porn. A sensible government would use this new delay – not to mention the fact that there are rather more pressing concerns facing parliament right now – to quietly kick the whole thing into the long grass, to join assorted other bits of moral panic legislation enacted in haste (like the laws again horror comics) as forgotten and unenforced rules that will be looked at in years to come with astonishment and amusement.

But I fear we don’t have a sensible government. Indeed, we don’t have a sensible parliament, as the statement made in the House today was met by MPs on all sides standing up to cheer on even further legislation. There’s already a white paper to extend age verification across the whole of the internet, led by campaigns from newspapers who, lest we forget, continually bleat that they don’t need any regulation, and who are all determined to close down alternative sources of information and regain their power and influence, using the protection of children as a handy excuse for restricting the rights of adults. The internet has long been viewed by those who like to control the flow of information as a threat, and I fear that we have not yet heard the last of this campaign. There are too many vested interests at play (now including all the companies who have invested time and money into age verification systems) for this to be simply abandoned. But if nothing else, the porn block should be a sobering warning that setting up a de facto ID scheme for simply accessing the internet – and the effect that will have on the free flow of ideas and information from websites unable to afford the costs of the ID schemes – is both difficult and dangerous for a free society. And if the powers that be can’t even set the damn thing up properly, what hope is there that it will actually be run effectively?

DAVID FLINT

One comment

  1. The end aim is to have a universal log-in, which — to save time — will probably come in the form of a microchip, embedded at birth. Most likely linked to our Facebook Calibra account, so we can get rid of that pesky currency.

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