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The Digital Economy Bill, which is now almost ready for British Parliamentary approval, covers many aspects of digital communications, from anti-piracy measures to improved standards for broadband connections. But the part of the bill which is likely to have the deepest effect on our culture has barely been discussed at all in the media.

After all, who would object to a measure to “protect children from pornography”? Beware: when governments promise to “keep our children safe” from some vague threat, there’s usually more to it than meets the eye.

The bill was first introduced a year ago after a short public consultation which appeared to have been largely ignored. You can read my response to it here, in which I point out the dangers of introducing a system of Internet censorship based on the scary idea (contradicted by the government’s own evidence) that online porn was harming children. The government’s “solution” to the porn problem is to create a censorship body with the power to block websites.

So this year, the UK is set to become the first democratic country to introduce a Chinese-style Internet censor. This is (or at least, should be) a big deal.

Digital Economy Bill

This law has two key parts:

  1. Any site containing “extreme porn” will be blocked.
  2. Any adult site that does not check the ages of visitors will be blocked.

Recently, there was a small grain of good news when the definition of “extreme porn” was modified, in order to allow a broader range of previously banned sexual activities. However, it’s unclear in practice how different this rule is, as the new definition of “extreme” includes the line: “…it is grossly offensive, disgusting, or otherwise of an obscene character” – which could mean anything really.

While focus has been on the “extreme porn” part, the bit about age checking is actually far more dangerous, as it will result in literally millions of websites being blocked in the UK. This requires owners of websites to verify that visitors are over 18 before they can view any sexual images at all, even soft-nude ones. And for most websites (except for the very biggest commercial players), this will be so difficult and expensive as to be effectively impossible.

It is estimated that at least four million websites will covered by the bill’s loose definition of pornography, and only a handful of these will be able to comply with the age verification rule. This censorship is actually supported by the biggest businesses in the porn industry, as they know it will wipe out their smaller competitors on a grand scale. Expect to see far fewer porn sites in future (at least, if you live in the UK).

And if you think that this regime, once established, won’t start blocking other “threats” to our well-being, think again. The British government has a long history of censoring a wide range of “unacceptable” material on film and TV. Porn is just the start.

A sad little ending

This new law will probably be in breach of EU law that protects “net neutrality”. But in their infinite wisdom, the British people have decided to leave the EU, and in the process, abandon these protections of their human rights.

Jerry Barnett is a technologist, author and campaigner, and runs the Sex & Censorship campaign blog. You can support his work by buying his book Porn Panic! or by donating to the campaign.

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  • neilw

    Excellent article, but what can we Brits do?

    The UK government has always assumed it has a moral right to tell its citizens what to do as well as a tendency to try to put the lid back on Pandora’s Box (which can’t be done) instead of dealing with the consequences of the box being open. We had Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles because the government decided it would damage our children if they were exposed to the word “ninja.”

    I’m all for child protection, but it needs to be based on evidence of genuine harm rather than “morality” which dates back to Victorian times.

  • doctorwhocommentator .

    this angers me for many reasons, but the biggest reason is that there actually putting teenager’s in more danger by doing this, first off there going to keep pirating no matter what, pirating is actually more likely to increase because of this because pirates don’t care about the law and in time will develop way’s in which there site’s can’t be blocked but the one’s trying to be on the right side of the law will be blocked by age block. but more importantly the teenager’s in there search for porn will be pushed to site’s with malware, or worse they’ll be suddenly a lot of site’s saying “free VPN” and it turn’s out it’s been gathering data to blackmail teenager’s, and then there’s the possibility of fake porn site’s popping up with fake age verification on them to commit fraud, and all for what just so a teenager didn’t go to pornhub at least pornhub was relatively safe.
    however I look at all this and think are there any comparisons because it’s easy to just say china, and there are, porn is illegal in south korea and they do block it where they can, and what we’re doing is actually the same thing Germany does, but as I understand they barley enforce it (blocking non-compliant site’s) but they have barely any german porn industry. however it does seem like the American side is preparing for age verification.
    non the less the one’s that the government is putting in the most danger are the teenagers.

  • doctorwhocommentator .

    you should look at this, apparently Britain’s not the only country looking into age verification 20 other’s are, but apparently there will be technology to be compliant without having to spend money or verify anyone (what?)

  • Paul Tavener

    I only found out about this recently. Guess I have failed on the “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance” test, but life is busy. To try to make amends I did a bit of checking over the weekend and wrote to my MP George Hollingbery on Sunday (see below) to complain. It would appear the third reading of the Bill will be tomorrow (26th April) and a Lords amendment is to be voted on which I believe would mitigate some of the worsts effects, if passed. Anyway I gave George a ring today just to make sure he had got my letter and spoke to his secretary as he wasn’t in. She assured me that they had received it and that I would get a reply soon, but said that he was very busy because of the election (he’s Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Prime Minister) I just said that I was glad there was an election coming as I would be basing my vote on his vote tomorrow and left it at that.

    If the worst does happen it will be necessary for people to install VPN software (Virtual Private Network) this will circumvent all government censorship as your ISP will not know which web sites you are visiting, all they will see is a single stream of encrypted data to and from a foreign proxy server.
    Anyway here is the letter that I sent:

    Dear Mr Hollingbery,
    I am writing to you to express my concerns over the Digital Economy Bill which will receive its third reading in the House of Commons on the 26th April.
    I should point out that I am a regular consumer of consensual adult pornography on the internet (shock horror – but no I don’t have 2 heads).
    There are two reasons that I am writing to you. Firstly I would encourage you to vote in favour of the House of Lord’s amendments to this Bill, which while still deeply flawed would at least make the legislation workable and avoid total chaos.
    Secondly I am honestly curious to discover how in this day and age anyone could think that it was rational, proportionate and acceptable to attempt to enforce BBFC style censorship on the entire global internet as (was in effect) proposed in the draft Bill. So (and I can’t tell you how much it pains me to say this) thank God for the House of Lords.
    I can only think that the Bill was deliberately worded with unworkably restrictive scope in order that the Government could be seen to have moderated its position so as to ‘only’ censor access to extreme pornography, which was probably the intention all along. If this is the case then it is high time that that the Government acted with greater honesty and transparency. If the intent is to censor internet content then at least have the decency to call it censorship.
    I am very much in favour of protecting children from inappropriate content but believe the best way to achieve this aim is by appropriate sex education, encouraging healthier sex positive attitudes and empowering parents by improvements to home filtering software, not by infringing the rights of adults. The Government cannot act in loco parentis for the entire adult population. Health and safety issues are very important but they do not trump all other considerations. Freedom needs to be properly respected, especially as many people have sacrificed their own safety in its name over the years.
    One final observation, if this bill were to be passed into law as originally drafted I would immediately install a Virtual Private Network and encourage others to do likewise. This would prevent any websites from being blocked by my ISP as my ISP would have no idea of which sites I had visited with the exception of one foreign proxy server.
    If this practice were to become widespread (as would undoubtedly be the case) the unintended consequence of this legislation would be a proliferation of proxy services and encryption which would make it increasingly difficult to remove content that really does need to be removed such as child abuse images.
    I would be most interested to hear your views and discuss this matter with you at your next public surgery in Waterlooville.
    Yours faithfully

    Paul Tavener