Why the UK's porn block will backfire spectacularly

Opinion: Censorship won't stop teens from bypassing age checks and will only show up the lawmakers behind the changes.

With global implications, internet censorship reaches inflection point Instead of opposing the internet barriers raised by the world's authoritarian regimes, Silicon Valley is playing along.

It was expected, sooner or later. 

On Wednesday, the UK government confirmed that an age check and ID verification scheme will come into effect for pornographic websites on 15 July.

Likely met with many eye rolls across the region -- both young and old -- from July, if you are a visitor from the UK to a porn website these domains will be responsible for checking that you are over 18, the legal age for viewing adult content.

The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), the regulator for film ratings in the UK, is overseeing the effort. 

Failure to comply may result in Internet Service Providers (ISPs) being forced to block pornography providers entirely and the government has also threatened the potential loss of payment services, figuring that hitting commercial websites in the wallet would bring the lesson home.

The BBFC told ZDNet that in these cases, the organization would "request that they [search engines and payment providers] withdraw services to a non-compliant website." (In other words, they cannot force the issue but rather make a request).

The UK Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport said that such checks will be "vigorous" and simply ticking a birthday box will not be enough.

Instead, scanned copies of ID such as a passport, driving license, or credit cards can be used for verification. Failing that, you can wander red-faced into a newsagent and buy what has been dubbed a "porn pass" -- a verification system passed on from porn vendor to your friendly neighborhood shopkeeper.

There is a stereotype floating around the UK which relates to teenagers hanging around outside such establishments in the quest to find someone over 18 years old to buy cigarettes or alcopops for them. While it is likely going to be tougher to find an adult willing to buy a porn pass on their behalf in the same way, there are many alternative ways for teens to access porn, should they wish to.

Websites impacted by the new rule must have one-third or more of its content dedicated to pornography, so forums and generic content-sharing platforms -- such as Reddit, Imgur, and Gfycat -- are free from the new rules and can be perused at leisure for pornography links. Non-commercial and artistic websites are also exempt.

The main way to circumvent the block, however, is through what is known as a virtual private network (VPN). The porn blockage is based on location, and so these systems, available on both a free and subscription basis, will be able to bypass the geofencing of restricted content.

Government officials may think that implementing a geoblock and connected ID verification check on pornography websites is a way to protect kids, but in reality, the teenagers who are meant to be "protected" against this material are the same ones which have grown up with such technologies their entire lives and are, in many cases, far more familiar with technology than our lawmakers appear to be.

People my age had brick telephones which could survive an apocalypse and remember the outraged roar of our parents as we used dial-up and subsequently clogged the phone line. 

Today's kids have been able to access whatever content they wish on YouTube from the toddler stage; they set up and run their own social media channels, the same kids provide IT support for their folks; and these are the same ones that have grown up with the wide-open gate of the internet, smartphones, tablets, and high-speed broadband.

They are not going to be stopped by an ill-thought-out, location-based verification check which can be bypassed in a few clicks.

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This scheme will not make the UK the "safest place in the world to be online," as Minister for Digital Margot James has proclaimed.

It will, instead, backfire and teach the UK's kids the early joys of VPNs, the means to circumvent surveillance and enter the Internet underworld through Tor, and will introduce them rapidly to the concept of censorship -- as well as how to avoid it. (Given the UK's click-a-link terrorism prosecution goals, this may not be a bad thing for the future workforce.)

On the other side of the coin, yes, it is too easy for children to stumble across inappropriate content online -- although "inappropriate" and what constitutes a porn website are up for debate. You may see spam accounts across Facebook and Twitter occasionally that post crude porn videos, but it does take some effort to end up at a porn website by accident.

"One of the biggest issues for the adult industry is an equal application of the law," Corey Price, VP of Pornhub told ZDNet. "There are over 4 million domains containing adult content and unless sites are enforced against equally, stumbling across adult content will be no harder than at present. If the regulator pursues a "proportionate" approach we may only see the "Top 50" sites being affected – this is wholly unacceptable as the law will then be completely ineffective, and simply discriminate against compliant sites."

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Pornography, too, is fantasy and does not generally reflect what otherwise occurs in many healthy relationships and can give young adults the wrong idea. But pretending it doesn't exist or restricting access to it doesn't help those who will access it given the mind to.

Instead of creating blanket blocks which impact not only kids but citizens at large -- many of which are perfectly adjusted adults that might enjoy watching porn without letting their newsagents know -- why are the funds the government has wasted on this nonsensical bill not being spent on sex education, which is sorely lacking and stringently biological in our schools instead?

If you truly want to protect kids, you give them the knowledge required to cope with living in a digital world. You don't have to explain every facet of online pornography but you should make it clear what is fantasy, what is acted, and what generally happens in reality. 

Cutting off access to pornography resources simply won't work, in the same way that putting adult magazines on the top shelf hasn't stopped them getting into the hands of teenagers. It will take your average twelve-year-old who has looked up a VPN on Google minutes to circumvent such blocks, and in the same way that these teens in the past would stash porn rags under the bed, they won't be prevented in their curiosity.

Our society is not PG rated. Sex sells everything from beauty products to house equity release, it's plastered on our magazines, in adverts, and down the high street.

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The wish to protect UK kids -- with between a third and a half having sex before they reach 16 -- from adult content is admirable, but not achievable. 

If your average consumer now begins to use a VPN to access pornography rather than hand over their personal details and give vendors a record of their pornographic interests and ID -- sent with a prayer that the vendor will never become a victim of a data breach -- ISP blockages will not even be noticed.

The UK government wants to be seen to be doing something about the over-sexualization of young kids, as well as the impact social media and the web at large has on their lives and mental well-being.

But wrapping up the present of censorship in a safety bow, proclaiming that blocks -- and not innovation -- make the UK a world leader in internet safety, is simply wrong. 

Protecting children through other means, such as frank discussions with parents, improved and realistic sex education in schools, and kid-friendly content such as the UK police forces' brilliant explainer on consent via cups of tea is where we should be spending our time, money, and energy.

The announcement was also keen to emphasize the results of a recent study (.PDF) conducted by YouGov for the BBFC which proclaims that "88 percent of parents with children aged 7-17 agree there should be robust age-verification controls in place to stop children seeing pornography online."

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The sample size was 6339 adults, of which 996 are parents of 7 to 17-year-olds. However, 878 parents across the breadth of the UK does not a country-wide opinion make. 

 The adoption of these checks may be one small step taken on a longer path to censorship in the United Kingdom. You have to wonder whether VPN blocks, proposed in the name of child safety, will be the next step.

The UK's government is the author of the famous Snooper's Charter, and so such a future is not unrealistic. However, it does have far more implications for general security, privacy, and freedom of expression.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments below. 

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