Porn site age-check law demanded by UK media watchdog

Filed Under: Featured, Law & order

No under 18. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.jpgA video-on-demand watchdog in the UK - whose government seems to have its knickers in a permanent twist over children potentially accessing internet porn - is demanding an age-check law for porn sites.

The Authority for Television On Demand (ATVOD) on Friday published what it called "startling" evidence of children's exposure to hardcore pornography on the internet and called for laws that would cut off the cash flow to porn sites that don't bar access to children.

The law already requires that UK on-demand services keep hardcore porn away from minors.

The problem lies with offshore porn sites that are out of the reach of British law, ATVOD says.

To put a leash on the overseas pornographers, the group wants to forbid credit and debit card operators from processing payments from British customers to sites that don't comply with the age verification rules.

ATVOD chair Ruth Evans said in a release that the group isn't advocating censorship, but rather that the government do everything it can to keep hardcore content out of kids' hands:

The law requires that UK on demand services keep such material out of reach of minors and we are committed to ensuring that UK providers of video on demand services comply with the statutory rules. But we have no control over services that come from outside the UK.

The Government needs to act urgently with a range of measures to protect children from this content. Key among them is legislation to make it possible for the UK payments industry to prevent funds flowing from this country to websites which allow children to access hardcore pornography.

Here are some of the findings of ATVOD's recent research, in which it tracked the actions of children and teenagers online in December 2013:

  • At least 44,000 primary school children accessed an adult website in one month alone - one in 35 of six to 11 year-olds in the UK going online.
  • One in 16 children under the age of 16—around 200,000—accessed an adult website from a computer.
  • One in five teenage boys under 18 clicked on porn websites. One adult site that offers free, unrestricted access to thousands of hardcore porn videos attracted 112,000 of the teenagers.

In fact, age-checking is already part of an opt-in, porn-free service proposed in the UK's 2012 Online Safety Bill.

That bill, which got its second reading in December 2013, would require internet providers - both service providers and mobile phone operators - to provide an internet service free of adult content but with the option of accessing such content, subject to age verification that the subject is 18 or older.

Prime Minister David Cameron in July announced new measures to protect children and challenged outfits such as Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft to do their part.

Teen on laptop. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.jpgThe ISPs reportedly weren't too happy about it, but by November, they said that so-called "family-friendly" filters could be turned on to block children and teens from seeing porn.

Google and Microsoft, for their part, announced that 100,000 unequivocally heinous search terms would now return no results that could find illegal material.

The ISPs and other critics have privately grumbled about the default-on filters, also known as the Great Firewall of Cameron, for three reasons:

  • It might be illegal under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers, which governs the interception of communications and regulates the powers of public bodies to carry out surveillance and investigation;
  • No filter is perfect and simply can't replace a parent's monitoring to keep children away from nasty and/or dangerous content; and
  • Kids are smart enough to find their way around a filter.

According to the BBC, the Labour party has already come out in support of ATVOD's call for snipping the purse strings to porn sites that don't age-check.

But critics such as Sex and Censorship, which describes itself as a free speech campaign group, said ATVOD's suggested law would prove ineffective.

The BBC quoted Sex and Censorship's Jerry Barnett:

It won't make any difference to the sites that give all their videos away for free and sell advertising because they don't need credit card processing.

And some sites are already accepting Bitcoin and other anonymous online payment systems. A clampdown on card payments would just accelerate this trend.

ATVOD wants the law to be changed to protect children before the next general election.

What do I think? I think that internet porn can be dangerous often because it coincides with malware.

But then, you're more likely to get infected by visiting a church website than you are when you surf porn.

As far as I'm concerned, the best, strongest, most reliable filter to protect a minor is an informed, engaged, loving parent or guardian - not whatever new anti-porn law gets drafted, whatever filer is imposed, or whatever content gets flagged more or less arbitrarily by government or industry wonks.

It's like they say: given the suits and the haircuts, are you really willing to trust politicians to be the arbiters of taste?

Image of 'No under 18' and teen on laptop courtesy of Shutterstock.

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14 Responses to Porn site age-check law demanded by UK media watchdog

  1. bob · 208 days ago

    The filter they implemented was flawed and very haphazard, banning sites about the town Scunthorpe and other innocent sites like sex education and suicide prevention sites. I have no doubt that this would be a second serving of that amount of incompetence.

    Of course this is all just the second or third wave in this flavour of politicians trying to look like they're achieving more than they really are, all because that scores votes with "responsible" adults who don't put the time in to knowing what their kids are doing.

    • On the subject of filtering I think the criticism of the filters has made for great copy but it's subject to to just as much vested interest as anything the politicians say.

      The ISPs are massive corporations with deep pockets and they didn't want to put in the filters and, IIRC, they leaked as much to the press.

      Any grown up discussion about filtering unstructured data has to start with an acceptance that false positives are inevitable. With a population of seventy million people spending many hours a day online there will always be shocking or amusing stories to be written about poor filtering.

      We all get along without drama in a world of imperfect spam filtering where we occasionally receive spam and we occasionally have to fish legitimate emails out of our junk mail folder.

      • RichardD · 206 days ago

        The big difference is, when we get a false-positive from our spam filters, we *can* fish the blocked message out of the junk mail folder.

        When a web filter overblocks, only the person who controls the filter can unblock the affected site. When that filter is controlled by your ISP, it can take days, or even weeks, for the site to be unblocked.

        When the block prevents access to a single site, that's a pain for the people who need to access the site, and a potential loss of business for the people running the site.

        When the block affects a CDN, as in the recent Sky vs JQuery debacle, it breaks every site that relies on that CDN.

        With more of our lives being moved online by companies and governments who see it as a way to save money, handing that sort of power over to a few filtering companies (who just happen to be run by Dave's mates) is a terrible idea.

        • As I said, I don't think anecdotes are not a sound basis on which to judge the effectiveness of filters.

          You make a good point about spam filters though, it is much easier to exercise direct control over them.

          The situation with web filters is perhaps closer to anti-malware.

          The control over what is and isn't caught by the software is in the hands of a small number of commercial entities and false positives occur. You have to talk to the vendor to get them sorted out and when they happen they're disruptive and sometimes newsworthy.

          We accept that anti-malware cannot offer 100% protection 100% of the time so we practice defence in depth, just as we need to with our childrens' safety online.

          If the filters fail horribly - as I expect they will from time to time in the early years - there is an easy workaround. You can turn them off and rely on the other layers in your defence in depth approach a little more.

  2. No fan of Dave · 208 days ago

    "Is viewing porn actually dangerous for minors?"

    "Lord Porn" (Lord Longford who did a 1970s report on porn) came to our school and told us all about the corrupting effect of porn.

    Question from one of the sixth-form girls:
    "Lord Longford, you have told us that porn corrupts. As the person in this hall who has probably seen more porn than anyone else, are you the most corrupt man in this hall?"

    Rapid end of Question and Answer session!

    • Presumably Lord Longford was not a minor?

      • Mary Thewlis · 207 days ago

        Or a good example of "it corrupts other people but not me".

        • It seems to me that adults and children are obviously, manifestly, very different and that we treat adults and children differently in almost all aspects of life as a matter of routine.

          I have no idea how access to porn affects children but it seems to me entirely plausible that it might affect children differently than adults.

  3. RichardD · 207 days ago

    "an opt-in, porn-free service"

    I see you're using the Daily Mail's "newspeak" definition of "opt-in" - i.e. "opt-out".

    In the standard definition of "opt-in", users must request that changes are made to their service. If the changes are made for everyone, and users must request that they are reversed, it's called "opt-out".

    In the DMs doubleplusgood redefinition, "opt-in" means the changes are applied to everyone, and users have to "opt-in" to not having the changes. In much the same way that spammers require users to "opt-in" to not receiving spam.

    Up next: redefining "censorship" to mean "allowing anyone to disagree with our opinion".

  4. Anonymous · 207 days ago

    ROTFLMAO. And how are they going to verify the age of the person visiting the website? By asking you to insert your date of birth? Muhuhahahahahahahaha......

    • Paul Ducklin · 207 days ago

      Well, they could also have a tick-box saying "I confirm this information is correct." That ought to do it.

    • Anonymous · 207 days ago

      Exactly. I spotted that as soon as they announced it. Politicians just don't get how the internet works. Never have and never will.

    • RichardD · 206 days ago

      There seem to be two suggestions so far:

      1. Ask for a valid credit-card.

      Because children will never get hold of their parent's credit-card and use it online, will they? Also, handing over your credit-card details to a porn site without being able to see what's on that site in advance sounds like a really great idea.

      2. Ask for information that can be tied back to the electoral register or other national ID database.

      As #1, except now the site has all the information it needs to steal your identity. Plus, "other national ID database" sounds like the ID card scheme, and that was received well, wasn't it?

  5. "As far as I'm concerned, the best, strongest, most reliable filter to protect a minor is an informed, engaged, loving parent or guardian - not whatever new anti-porn law gets drafted, whatever filer is imposed, or whatever content gets flagged more or less arbitrarily by government or industry wonks."
    You're correct in that.
    All that filters online do is to make children better at circumventing them.

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.