Conservative government Clueless on Porn Censorship

photo CC-BY Gerriet

photo CC-BY Gerriet

In a move that would have Operation Yewtree crawling all over them if it screamed “Think of the Children” any louder or more breathlessly, Conservative Culture Secretary Sajid Javid has pledged mandatory age checks on porn sites. While his position was probably well intentioned, it yet again shows a vast gulf between reality, and the beliefs of ignorant MP’s .

The idea to force age verification requirements onto adult websites may seem like a good idea in theory, but it’s one that not only won’t, but can’t work; it’s one that can lead to profound issues for press freedoms in the future.

The idea of effective age restrictions is one manifestation of a fantasy beloved of politicians everywhere – “decree and it shall happen, as intended”. The reality is otherwise though. There is no such thing as an effective solution, and so his plan is doomed to failure before it starts.

I know a fair bit about this topic, as I’ve been researching online site blocking and age controls for many years. I’ve even investigated the online pornography world for many years, speaking on US TV about it in the past, and it’s absolutely crystal clear to me that Mr Javid’s plan has all the hallmarks of a Whitehall Wish, and has had zero input from anyone with any experience or knowledge of the subject.

This is not like Mr Javid’s time as a vice-president for one of America’s largest banks during the financial crisis, he could say any and do any old crap then with no fear of consequences, knowing that his mistakes will be bailed out by taxpayers. This is reality, here and now, and his proposal is not just ignorant, it brings up a legitimate question of his basic competence for public office.

Let’s focus on realities, and imagine someone (“Bob”) who’s just turned 18. Under Javid’s plan, he can now look at pornography online. So he trundles off to a porn site, and has to prove he is now 18. How’s he going to do that? In a bar or pub he would show the bartender his ID, and that would prove he was old enough, but how can he do that online? He could send them a photo of his ID, but what would stop him using a fake one before now? Nothing, unless the site was able to access and verify Bob through a copy of government databases.

So that’s one way the plan could work. Except you’d have the problem that all these sites would have access to all the ID’s of UK citizens. Sorry, but that seems like a bigger problem to me than kids watching porn. Already in the past we’ve seen attempts at extortion through the court systems by solicitors who attempted to use allegations of porn viewing to extort (an international fight I’ve been battling for the past 7-8 years), and this will just open up the floodgates to more. Not to mention the growing problem of identity theft and fraud.

So another method then, such as one that was used heavily in the past – credit card information. While I’m sure it’d appeal to the big City banker in him, it’s again unworkable. The high levels of fraud by fringe operators in this sector (who are indistinguishable from legitimate operators), and a problem for more than a decade,  make this undesirable on the part of the credit card companies. It’s still used as a method where content is charged for, but a vast number of sites have no paywall, instead working through a value-extra credit system (such as cam sites), or ad-based (many tube sites).

But even if we assume for an instant that either one of these solutions are workable, there’s a much bigger problem, and one that actually comes up a lot of the time in copyright infringement cases; just who’s behind the keyboard?

The assumption is that, like going into a store, someone asks for ID, and its shown, and the ID is checked against the person. If I am carrying an ID that says I’m Xui Lui, a 57yo asian woman, they’re probably going to reject me in person. Online, how will anyone be able to tell – it’s not like they can see the person to know if the person opening the account is the named person. Of course the Minister doesn’t think about that, because in his mind, no-one ever lies on the internet, certainly not about their age (or gender).

It’s almost as if he’s never heard the old saying

“Welcome to the Internet,
Where Men are Men,
Women are Men…
and children are FBI agents.

Of course, it’s far easier (and more realistic) to pretend to be a Family member, because no kid has EVER done that before. 16 year old Tom can pretend to be his dad, or his older brother Bob, to get access, and we’ve just circumvented every single ‘protection’ there. This sort of thing was common even 20 years ago, before the internet was functionally usable for porn, when I was a teenager. People raided their parent’s stashes, or were passed pornography by older brothers, or friends who had them, the internet has not changed behavior, only the tools used.

So it does bring up the question, just what are the Tories thinking with this plan, or are they even thinking at all? It’s been shown that even websites which are supposed to be blocked from viewing by ALL people, irrespective of age, by High Court order, have had very little decrease in traffic in the UK. To expect there to be any difference when you only want to block a subset of people, based on their age (and especially blocking teenagers, the most technologically-literate age group in general) is so far beyond blindly ignorant it’s actually an affront to ministers who actually bother to learn something about the topics in their portfolio.

There can be only two reasons why he would make such a promise

  1. It’s nothing more than a baseless ploy to sound good and appeal to the electorate in the run to the election. Those supporting it may be encouraged to vote for the conservatives who have no intention of ever following through with this factually impossible pledge, and has nothing but contempt for the education level of his supporters.
  2. They actually believe it’s possible. Javid might have said it based on advice he’d been given. That is, in many ways worse. It shows that a major UK political party, the Government and especially those in ministerial office are attempting to make policy without the best knowledge available, and deliberately so. Not only would any expert have told him it’s unworkable, a large percentage of teenagers would be able to SHOW him why it wouldn’t work.

There is, of course, always a third option (besides contempt or incompetence) and that is a vast regulatory expansion including requirements on identity documentation and a far more rigid state of surveillance and control. In fact, something rather similar to efforts in Turkey or Russia, despite how poorly those efforts end up working (and how easy they are to circumvent). Of course, it’s not effectiveness that’s is important with legislation like this, it’s the headlines and steps that allow for more, broader or wider-ranging restrictions down the line, as well as a fallback ‘issue’ to blame when all else fails.

It’s not something that should be ignored out of hand, not when you consider much of the framework (such as the Digital Economy Act, and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act) to create such a citizen-control system is already in place. This is just a proposed extension of already implemented policies to control communication and free speech (and one as badly thought out as the ridiculed ‘superinjunctions’).

Perhaps the one thing that can be said definitively in all this, is that the supposed moral panic touted as the reason is not only completely fabricated, but nothing more than an attempt to institute a new ‘morality police’ (to join those in other basitians of freedom and liberty), led by modern-day incarnations of Hyacinth Bucket and Mary Whitehouse. Just how is that “thinking of the children”, and not “pandering to lazy adults” who are not capable of competent parenting?

Meanwhile, kids will continue to laugh at these restrictions, and at the clueless fools that proposed them, leading to ever-greater contempt for rules and regulations, because if this rule’s a stupid, ignorant one, which other ones are?

It’s a solution to nothing, and a source of future problems. Good going Mr Culture Secretary, you’re promoting a culture of lawlessness and ignoring the government. I’m glad British society was worth the price of the Daily Mail endorsement.

This piece was originally published at the UK Pirate Party