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.