Government’s Ineffective UK ISP Internet Porn Ban Coming April 2019

censorship uk internet stop sign

No, it’s not an early April Fools. Instead April is officially the month when the government’s new age verification system – targeted at commercial websites and “apps” that contain pornographic content – comes into force. Broadband ISPs will also be required to block sites that fail to comply with the new rules.

At present all of the major ISPs should already be giving their subscribers a choice over whether or not to block adult content via their network-level Parental Controls, which is very useful if you have children. Despite this the Digital Economy Act 2017 (summary) went one step further by forcing an age-verification system upon ‘commercial’ websites that contain pornographic content.

Under this approach the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), which has been handed the responsibility of regulating all this (predicted to cost them around £4.4m), gains the power to force broadband ISPs and mobile network operators into blocking commercial pornographic websites and apps that fail to put “tough age [18+] verification measures” in place.

Sadly no judicial oversight to help prevent against poor censorship decisions appears to exist and the law allows the blocking of “material other than the offending material” (over-blocking here we come). Crucially all of this has just been marked as “fit for purpose” by the Regulatory Policy Committee (RPC), which effectively means that it can proceed despite plenty of flaws and unknowns in its design.

NOTE: The BBFC will also be able to direct ISPs to block access to sites containing “extreme pornography“, regardless of whether AV controls are in place.

Baroness Shields, UK Minister for Internet Safety, said in 2018:

“We will help make sure children aren’t exposed to harmful sexualised content online by requiring age verification for access to commercial sites containing pornographic material.

Just as we do in the offline world, we want to make sure that online content that is only suitable for adults is not freely accessible to children.”

However, leaving aside the obvious debate about making the internet a safer place for children, the government still hasn’t clarified precisely how the age verification system will actually work and in any case it’s only likely to be effective at hindering casual access (i.e. there’s not much that they can do to stop tech-savvy users from simply circumventing it). But those aren’t the only concerns.

Sadly nobody knows quite how to make an accurate Age Verification system online, at least not without forcing people to share their private personal and or financial details, often with unreliable porn peddlers. The infamous ‘Ashley Madison‘ hack has already highlighted just how dangerous such information could be in the wrong hands (multiple cases of blackmail and suicide etc.).

For example, MindGeek, which runs major sites like PornHub, YouPorn and RedTube, has previously proposed to use a mix of credit card, mobile SMS, passport or driving licence based identification through their AgeID system to manage the process; this will also be licensed out to other sites (i.e. one-click verification across many sites).

However some fear that the AgeID approach could disadvantage those using other solutions that would require the user to re-verify and there are concerns about the lack of solid privacy safeguards involved. Likewise nobody seems to know if AgeID will even be compliant with the Government’s expectations.

MindGeek’s own sites have previously been criticised for making money by allowing users to upload video content (often this is pirated from other producers) and then monetising it via advertising. Perhaps unsurprisingly they’ve also called for up to 4 million websites to be blocked that contain adult content (including Twitter), unless they pay the MindGeek tax for AgeID, naturally.

Elsewhere around 60,000 shops are expected to offer Age Verification Cards, which will embarrassingly be based on some form of vague shopkeeper’s assessment. Fun, we can see lots of people using that.

Jim Killock, Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, said:

“The BBFC will struggle to ensure that Age Verification is safe, secure and anonymous. They are powerless to ensure people’s privacy.

While BBFC say they will only block a few large sites that don’t use AV, there are tens of thousands of porn sites. Once MPs work out that AV is failing to make porn inaccessible, some will demand that more and more sites are blocked. BBFC will be pushed to block ever larger numbers of websites.”

Meanwhile last year’s Impact Assessment for all this estimated that “large” ISPs could each expect to incur costs of between £100,000 to £500,000 to update their systems in order to block non-compliant websites (this assumes a block of up to 50 sites per year at “DNS level“).

Obviously big ISPs can deal with such a cost, not least because they’ve already got similar systems in place, but smaller providers may struggle. Judging by their responses, most of the smallest providers that we asked last year still weren’t sure what the government actually expected (MPs do not appear to have consulted them much or at all) or even if they’d be included.

The government’s guidance does state that the regulator should take into consideration the number and type of customers the ISP has (i.e. how many residential users) before issuing an order and sources indicate that, unofficially, they may only be looking at providers with 100,000+ residential broadband subscribers. One top of that it’s already been indicated that simple DNS blocking should suffice.

Not that this matters, ISP-level blocking of any type is merely a placebo, the equivalent of leaving a door wide open with the words “do not enter” stuck outside. This is not the fault of ISPs and merely reflects how the internet functions. Anybody who wants to access such content will easily be able to circumvent any blocks by using various Virtual Private Network (VPN) or Proxy Servers, which only require basic knowledge (background).

Likewise there’s still a big question mark over mission creep and where the line will be drawn on the definition of such content, with naughty pictures also appearing on many sites other than those that are dedicated toward peddling porn (e.g. Google Image Search). At least initially the focus is likely to be on the biggest distributors but, as warned above, in time that could evolve.

Lest we forget that there may also be some unintended consequences, such as forcing those who work in the adult industry into more dangerous situations by impeding their ability to advertise safely on the internet (back to curb crawling outside your house etc.) or blocking sites that merely talk frankly about sex / sexual health, or which provide related advice.

In the meantime the only fool-proof way to completely stop all access to such content is to physically disable your internet connection. In addition, the Government is understood to have set aside £10m in order to fend off any legal battles related to the new measures.

NOTE: We believe that ISPs which identify themselves as being primarily business providers may also escape the rules.

Government Guidance on Age Verification & Blocking
https://www.gov.uk/../Guidance_Age-Verification_Regulator_for_Online_Pornography_January_2018.pdf

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