The Observer ran a longer version of this article on Adults Only by Jamie Doward on 24 March 2019. It features comments from Dr Gail Dines and John Carr on the thinking behind the new Age Verification scheme in the UK. The scheme is expected to be launched by the British Board of Film Classification in April 2019, though Brexit may delay it.
“A new law forcing pornography users to prove that they are adults was supposed to be introduced early next month. But sources told the Observer that it may not be unveiled until after the Brexit impasse is resolved as the government, desperate for other things to talk about, believes it will be a good news story that will play well with the public when it is eventually unveiled.
Backing for Age Verification
This view seems well founded. A large cohort of experts, parents and, indeed, young people are worried about hardcore pornography’s online ubiquity. More than eight out of 10 parents (83%) back age verification, according to a poll for Internet Matters, a not-for-profit organisation funded by the likes of Google, Facebook, the BBC and Sky.
That young people have always sought out pornography is not in doubt. Indeed, one argument against the new law is that it stops young people doing something they have always done.
But this view is myopic, according to experts. “There’s always been porn around but we’ve never had a porn industry before,” said John Carr, secretary of the Children’s Charities’ Coalition on Internet Safety. “In the search for novelty, and new and shocking material, the industry is producing stuff that was unimaginable 15 years ago in the mass market.”
And it is this “stuff”, hardcore explicit sex, that is alarming some people who work with young children. “When you look at 30 years of empirical research, anyone who argues that porn does not have a profound impact on the social, emotional, cognitive development of kids is akin to a climate change denier,” said Dr Gail Dines, a sociologist and expert on the porn industry who is president of Culturereframed.org, an organisation that helps young people to cope with a hypersexualised media.
Porn and young people
The government’s own impact assessment of the new law, suggests longitudinal research, has demonstrated that, among young people, “intentional exposure to violent X-rated material over time predicted an almost sixfold increase in the odds of self-reported sexually aggressive behaviour”.
For young girls, exposure to pornography brings another set of issues. “There is a smaller group of girls who have been sexually abused, and they tell me they need to see another girl being abused in order to achieve orgasm,” Dines said. “The larger group are being groomed by the porn industry to be ready for the guys who have been groomed by the industry to want rough anal sex, to want to put their penis down her throat till she gags, to engage in threesomes. She’s taught that she’s empowered if she pleases her man.”
Some sites offer free access at first to get users hooked in the hopes of migrating them to expensive premium services later. Photograph: Getty
Studies suggest that the age of users is coming down. “The average age of a kid looking at porn is 11. Some studies put it at nine,” said Dines who was talking to the Observer from a conference in the US that was examining the role pornography plays in child-on-child sexual abuse.
“The average age of the victim, the girl, is four to eight, and the average age of the rapist is 10 to 12. They are acting out the porn on the girls.”
UK leads the way
No wonder, then, that the world is watching what the UK does very closely. “No liberal democracy has ever tried this before,” Carr said. “It is an experiment, but then the internet is meant to be the home of innovation. This is innovation.”
Several European countries, including Sweden and Poland, are known to be keen on a similar approach, if the UK can be shown to make it work .The Free Speech Coalition, a US-based trade association for the pornography industry, has acknowledged that “Britain’s efforts [are] a model for those to come”.
Ostensibly, a global shift to age verification should have little impact on the pornography industry: young people don’t spend money on porn. But this view is erroneous, according to Dines. “You’re wiring their brains in early adolescence. Free porn is the equivalent of me hanging outside schools, giving out free packets of Marlboro and bottles of beer.”
Once they have them hooked, porn sites will look to migrate users to expensive premium services, such as live webcams.
Fearing the threat to their business, the major porn sites opposed the law when it was first floated by David Cameron, then prime minister, in 2015. But, sensing which way public opinion was blowing, they have now vowed to comply. This may be in part because companies such as Visa and Mastercard have pledged to withdraw payments facilities from anyone who does not sign up to the scheme, which will be overseen by the British Board of Film Classification.
The board has the power to fine and impose a range of sanctions on sites that fail to comply. But some are not convinced that this will be much of a deterrent.
“You are talking about possibly tens of thousands of websites that aren’t going to comply with this,” said Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, which protects the digital rights of people in the UK, including privacy and free speech online. “Many are too small, US-based, with very little interest in the UK market. Trying to police that is not really going to happen.”
Proof of age?
To prove they are of adult age, pornography users will have to upload passport or credit card details to third-party age-verification companies – or buy a special card from a newsagent that gives them a digital token. Some warn this could create another Ashley Madison situation – the online adultery site which was subject to a massive data breach.
Christine Jardine, a Liberal Democrat MP, has warned that “the information could be open to hacking and, like any other bulk data, it could be sold on”.
But Carr said that all information should be encrypted, making it difficult for hackers to exploit the data. And none of it could be shared with the pornography sites.
However, some still worry about the sites gaining access to the data.
Users of online pornography, reluctant to give their details, may look for technological ways around the new law. Photograph: Chris Hondros/Getty
“Once you have an age-verification requirement, you are strongly tying that information to an individual across many websites, not just one,” Killock said. “It’s down to how the technology is implemented, down to the discretion of people designing the systems. Yes, the big companies are saying they are going to be dead responsible, but not all the companies will be.”
Reluctant to give their details because of privacy fears, some users may seek technological solutions. One approach would be to access peer-to-peer networks that direct users to where they can download pornographic content without revealing their age, via the use of “torrent files”. But those files, which act as an index, helping users find their way around the internet, can also be tracked.
Alternatively, some may use virtual private networks which allow their computer to pretend it is outside the UK. But, again, some experts believe disreputable VPNs may threaten to exploit the user unless they pay a fee for anonymity. Pornhub, which declined to comment, established its own VPN last year.
For many young people, though, the new law will not change the way they consume porn.
“A lot of kids are not getting porn through Pornhub,” Dines said. “They are getting it through Instagram and Snapchat.” On social media platforms, banned material is often hidden behind hashtags and emojis which act as secret codes to tag searches.
Ultimately, ways will be found to get around the new law, but Dines predicted that it will “massively” restrict the amount of porn that children can view.
More importantly, it will denormalise the activities of the world’s last unregulated industry. As Dines put it: “This shifts social discourse.”
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