Online porn will soon require age checks in Britain

Online porn will soon require age checks in Britain

AS IN most countries, only adults are allowed to buy pornography in British shops. In theory, the same is true online. In practice, of course, obtaining pornography on the internet is easy at any age. Prodded by children’s charities, the government wants to tighten things up. The Digital Economy Act, which was passed in 2017, included a requirement that pornographic websites would have to check their users’ age before allowing them access. The rules were due to come into force this month. But in March, buried at the bottom of an unrelated press release, the government pushed the date back to the end of the year.

Quietly postponing a policy is often the first step towards abandoning it. But not, it seems, in this case. The government has appointed the British Board of Film Classification, the country’s film censor, to enforce the new rules on age-verification. The BBFC is now consulting the public on how it should go about that job, with a view to presenting its ideas to Parliament in the summer.

The general idea is not new. Like many other countries, Britain already imposes age checks on gambling websites, which ask their users for details such as their names and addresses, which can be checked against public records such as the electoral roll. But that could be a problem with porn. One of the advantages of internet pornography is that it avoids the embarrassment involved in buying a magazine in a shop. Customers may be reluctant to hand over identifying details that could leak—or be hacked—in future.

David Austin, the BBFC’s boss, is at pains to point out that porn remains legal, and that the law is not intended to make life harder for the 56% of British adults who admitted in a survey in 2014 that they had watched online porn at least “occasionally”. Rather than run the age-checking schemes itself, the BBFC will oversee their development by other organisations. But, says Mr Austin, there are many ways that such checks might be done. One would be to require users to enter a credit-card number, or provide details of a mobile-phone contract, both of which can be obtained only by adults. Another idea, for the more privacy-conscious, is to allow people to buy, in physical shops, a numerical code that would provide access to the forbidden fruit online. Such numbers could be sold in the same way as alcohol and cigarettes, with identification requested only if the shopkeeper thinks a customer looks suspiciously young.

The BBFC will have the power to require internet service providers to block access to sites that flout the rules, as well as to levy fines and to require payment processors such as Visa and Mastercard to cut off the site’s source of income.

The government says the law is designed to protect children who stumble across porn while looking for other things. But for those depraved teenagers seeking out the stuff deliberately, things seem unlikely to get much more difficult. Attempts in Britain to block piracy websites have proved easy to circumvent, via virtual private networks (which hide what is passing through an internet connection) and proxy sites (which disguise a user’s eventual destination). Porn sites will be no different. A schoolyard black market in login IDs seems inevitable. The law is designed to target commercial porn providers. But plenty of porn is available through search engines and social media, even though it is not their main business.

Ironically, the new law could prove a boon for a Luxembourg-based firm called MindGeek, which is reckoned to be the world’s biggest porn merchant. The firm is one of the biggest bandwidth-users, servicing more than 100m visitors a day across its various websites, among which is Pornhub, the most popular porn site. It has an age-verification product of its own, called AgeID, which is in use in Germany (which already requires age-verification for porn). Assuming it gets the nod from the BBFC, MindGeek is ready to deploy the system for British users.

Other porn sites would be able use AgeID to comply with the new laws, for a fee. Many of MindGeek’s rivals resent the prospect of paying an already-dominant firm. But MindGeek’s market power could make AgeID the most-used piece of age-verification software across the web—and not just in the porn industry. Video-streaming sites, from YouTube to the BBC, offer violent, sweary content that, like porn, is supposed to be off-limits to children. It is an interesting question, says Mr Austin, to ponder whether age-verification rules might one day apply to them, too. 

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