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UK finally abandons its unworkable ‘porn block’ plan

Instead, it will focus on implementing a wider regime to tackle 'online harms.'
Daniel Cooper, @danielwcooper
October 16, 2019
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Yui Mok - PA Images via Getty Images

The UK has conceded that its regularly-delayed proposal to create a nationwide adult content firewall will not go ahead. The system, due to be implemented in April 2018, December 2018, July 2019, the near future, has been abandoned, for now. In a statement, Nicky Morgan MP said that officials would move to tackle so-called "online harms" in a different manner than those laid out in the existing law.

Part 3 of the 2017 Digital Economy Act laid out a plan for a system where people could not access adult content unless they proved they were over 18. Rather than administer the system itself, the government farmed out responsibility to a third-party, the British Board of Film Classification. The BBFC is, itself, a regulatory body funded by the movie industry, as a way to avoid direct censorship.

In order to prove their age, users would have to sign up to some sort of age-verification service, run by a third party. That would have required the purchase of a "porn pass," sold over the counter in retail stores so staff could establish your age as they do for alcohol sales. The pass would have then allowed you to access sites that market adult content on a commercial basis, as laid down in the act.

The law was intended to prevent minors from accessing adult content, but its aims were defeated long before publication. Social media sites, like Twitter and Reddit, were exempted from the bill, despite the fact that it's very easy to find adult content on there. Compared to, say, an adult content website where the material is behind a paywall, and it was hard to understand the reasoning behind the law.

And the existence of one or two large registers of users who had paid money to view adult content was a civil liberties nightmare. The proposals were decried, from the get-go, by experts and pundits as technically unworkable and highly damaging to individual freedoms. Even sending a press release was bungled by the BBFC, which exposed the email addresses of over 300 journalists in talking about the news.

There were also concerns raised about the identity of the companies tasked with implementing the age identification system. Mindgeek, owner of Pornhub, was heavily criticized for both its business practices and the risk that it would gain monopoly power over rivals if it controlled access to their sites. Not to mention that the system, if tied to UK IP addresses, could be easily circumvented with the use of a VPN.

The UK has not given up on its plans to censor the internet, however, and is looking at a broader "regulatory regime." In her statement, Morgan addresses the exemption of social media sites, saying that regulators will have "discretion on the most effective means for companies to meet their duty of care." What that turns out to be is not yet clear, but it's likely to have similar chilling effects on civil liberties.

In a press release, the BBFC said that it "had all systems in place to undertake the role of AV regulator," but "understands the government's decision." It added that it will bring its "expertise and work closely with government to ensure that the child protection goals of the DEA are achieved."

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