How to respond to the age verification consultation

Posted at 19:13 on 5 Apr 2016 by Pandora / Blake

Tags: age verification, AV consultation, BBFC, censorship, civil liberties, CPS, digital liberties, ethical porn, feminist porn, freedom of expression, freedom of speech, net filters, obscenity, Ofcom, OPA, piracy, politics, porn, privacy, sex education, surveillance, tube sites

A working group called the “UK council for child internet safety” have published a 44 page proposal document outlining new plans whose stated intention is to ‘protect children online’. The proposals have worrying implications for privacy and freedom of speech, and are based on questionable assumptions and widely-debunked statistics and studies. If they go ahead, online age verification will become compulsory for anyone in the UK wishing to view any web page anywhere in the world on which adult content (still images or video) is hosted. If a site does not install an approved age verification system, the government wants to be able to contact the site's billing agent to cut off their income, and/or their hosting provider to have the site taken offline entirely. These proposals formed part of the government's pre-election manifesto, which also promised the construction of a UK-wide firewall blocking adult sites that failed to comply.

If you think this is a bad idea, please respond to the consultation by midday on 12 April 2016 - that's one week from today. 

First, you need to fill out the online multiple-choice survey here: https://dcms.eu.qualtrics.com/SE/?SID=SV_6lH57lhIw71L6n3

The questions are fairly heavily loaded, and only the first one has a 500 character text field for you to "explain your answer". Hardly space for a detailed rebuttal! So in addition to answering the online survey, I urge you to write in, expanding on your answers and questioning the assumptions on which the proposal is based.  You can reply by email to AVconsultation@culture.gov.uk, or by post to:

FAO Child Online Safety Team
4th Floor, Department for Culture, Media and Sport
100 Parliament Street
London, SW1A 2BQ.

I've put together some bullet points and notes below to help you write your response. There are a lot of reasons why this proposal is a terrible idea, so to avoid this post getting too long I'll expand on each of these points in a supplementary post over the next few days.

Overview

There is no robust evidence to prove that encountering explicit images online causes young people developmental harm. On the contrary, the evidence clearly shows that greater access to pornography is correlated with healthier societal attitudes towards sex and lower rates of sexual violence. Far from being a “leader in child online safety” as this working group claims, the UK has an appalling record on sex education, and is already a world leader in censorship. These proposals are not evidence based, will not be effective at reducing harm, and will extend the UK’s encroaching surveillance and censorship at the expense of privacy and freedom of expression.

Harm reduction and sex education

  • There is not sufficient evidence to support the premise, on which the entire proposal is based, that encountering online pornography is harmful to young people. In fact there is more evidence that availability of porn is correlated with harm reduction, healthier attitudes towards sex, and lower rates of sexual violence.
  • The proposal relies on widely-discredited sources such as the NSPCC Childline survey, which has been debunked for reasons including a lack of ethical safeguards, biased sample selection and over-reliance on leading questions. If evidence is being used to justify legal reform on the scale of these proposals, the methodology and conclusions must stand up to scientific peer review in a way that the evidence cited simply does not.
  • There are no simple technological solutions to social problems. Rather than restricting internet freedom, efforts would be better spent on improving and funding sex education in schools. Young people have a human right to age-appropriate sex education and information about the topics that are relevant to their questions and experiences, including visual material. Sex education based around pleasure and consent reduces violence and helps keep young people safe online.
  • Young people are critical media consumers and engage with pornography for a variety of reasons. When young people are not receiving adequate (or even any) sex education in school, online pornography offers a key opportunity to learn about bodies, consent and pleasure. 
  • The government has cut funding to relationships and sex education programmes, reduced the availability of trained sex educators in schools, and failed to follow the Education Select Committee’s recommendation that sex education become a compulsory part of the curriculum. This directly contradicts the proposal's claim that "Government has taken action to support [sex] education through schools".
  • Having sex carries more risk of harm than looking at porn; if 16 year olds are capable of managing the risk of sexual intercourse, they are capable of managing the risk of looking at porn. Any age verification controls should be consistent with the age of consent for sexual activity.

Freedom of speech

  • Freedom of speech is important and must be protected. Restricting access to pornography stigmatises consensual adult sex, fosters ignorance about sex among young people, and increases its taboo appeal.
  • Parental controls, public wifi filters, mobile internet filters and ISP filters already provide more than adequate capability to block adult content in the public and private sphere.
  • The UK's attempts to censor and control the internet already exceed the US and any other EU country and have done for many years. Far from being a "world leader", the UK is acting alone.

Privacy and surveillance

  • Age verification controls should not require viewers to upload identification or reveal personal details that <a data-cke-saved-href="http://sexandcensorship.org/2015/07/whats-problem-age-verification/" href="http://sexandcensorship.org/2015/07/whats-problem-age-verification/" "="">risk compromising their privacy. The UN special rapporteur for the right to privacy recently stated that anonymity enables individuals to exercise their rights to freedom of opinion and expression in the digital age and, as such, deserves strong protection. Any identity systems connecting visited sites to a verified ID would threaten the fundamental human right to privacy; any corresponding database would be highly vulnerable to data leaks or misuse. 
  • Age verification controls have already been mandatory within the UK since 2010. There are numerous problems with existing methods, such as the risk of identity theft and credit card fraud.
  • Most methods of age verification assume certain privileges which marginalise and exclude adults on low incomes, those at risk of violence for whom it would be unsafe to share their passport names, and those in precarious housing without proof of address.
  • The expectation that the Government could compel international server hosts to "take down" sites that do not comply with UK regulation is deeply unrealistic. Blocking non-compliant sites with a new UK-wide firewall, as threatened by ministers on multiple occasions, would infringe upon UK citizens' digital liberties and put the UK's internet on a par with that of China, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
  • There is no secure, reliable, independent age verification system which does not risk loss of privacy by sharing personal details, or risk fraud by sharing financial account information. The proposal document itself admits that "This is an ongoing area of work and its outcomes are yet to be determined, but [...] there is considerable interest from the private sector in developing age-verification solutions." It is nonsensical to propose legislation mandating the use of technology that has not yet been developed or tested.
  • These proposals form part of an larger push towards increased surveillance, databases and control that is increasingly worrying. They risk bringing UK law into conflict with the European courts of justice and human rights.

Problems with classification

  • The proposals assume a straightforward definition of “pornography” which is not workable in practice. The lines between art, entertainment and pornography are complex, shifting and subjective. Many web sites that are "intended to arouse" are artistic, political, and have cultural value; others do not include any nudity or graphic sexual acts. Imposing strict controls on online media judged "pornographic", but not on mass media entertainment that is just as explicit, is a stigmatising and unjustifiable double standard.
  • The current classification system, particularly the BBFC guidelines on R18 content, does not reflect current social standards of obscenity in the UK. The CPS have not yet updated their Guidance on the OPA in the wake of R v Peacock (2012), in which the defendant was tried for publication of supposedly obscene DVDs of male fisting, urination and BDSM, and was found Not Guilty by the jury. It is highly inappropriate to use this Guidance to regulate what can and can't be shown online without bringing it up to date.
  • BDSM practitioners and porn performers are the experts in our own lives, and consensual fetish activities of the type banned by the BBFC guidelines are in reality undertaken carefully and considerately, with strong community standards for safe behaviour and best practice. Since the guidelines are allegedly concerned with the safety and consent of participants, they should be developed in consultation with specialists. We would be happy to help Ofcom, the CPS and the BBFC develop realistic, sensible guidelines for classifying fetish content.

Piracy, monopoly and industry standards

  • The proposals refer to the free tube sites as the most frequent means by which young people access porn, and yet the proposed changes would fall most heavily on niche community sites and independent content producers with low profit margins. Content is posted out of context on tube sites, often re-edited with humanising sections stripped away to make it appear more extreme, with offensive language added to the scene descriptions. Many videos are republished without the permission of the copyright holders. Pornographic media should not be judged on the basis of truncated, decontextualised, pirated versions; and content creators should not bear the burden of repressive regulation if their work is misappropriated in this way.
  • Piracy and monopoly are not issues that are unique to pornography. Deregulation would be the best way to challenge the monopoly of the tube sites, increase diversity and create a more egalitarian porn industry, by removing the financial and legal obstacles around billing and distribution that currently prevent independent producers from competing in the marketplace.
  • By aiming to control what internet users can see online, these proposals fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the digital age. Locking away the contents of a commercial adult site will not prevent age-verified users from copying those files, reuploading them, sharing them, reblogging them, and torrenting them. The only effect will be to destroy legitimate business without making a dent in the amount of explicit content that is freely available.
  • The porn industry already self-regulates and enforces community standards. Many content producers and porn performers are working hard to reduce piracy and promote better industry standards and ethical business practices. The full decriminalisation of pornography in the UK would reduce stigma and allow porn performers to engage in dialogue with young people, demystifying the production process and helping teenagers develop the critical skills to deconstruct porn at whatever age they encounter it.

Responses to date:

Jerry Barnett - Sex and Censorship

There's nothing to say we aren't allowed to publish our responses, so if you do write in, please post the link to your reply in the comments so I can add it to the list.

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