Watch porn online? UK may soon make you upload photo ID to prove your age

New legislation will mean you'll have to upload your passport or driving license to prove you're over 18. Here's why some people are concerned

You may soon have to upload photo ID to view porn in the UK

The UK will soon implement a new law. Anyone wanting to view porn online will have to prove their age.

The changes have already led to one well-known gay porn provider in the UK deciding to close down.

David Bridle, the publisher of Dirty Boyz, announced in October that last month’s issue of the magazine would be its last. What he sees as Draconian new laws to clamp down on porn online prompted his decision.

‘Following the Conservative government’s decision … to press ahead with new regulations forcing websites which make money from adult content to carry an age verification system … Dirtyboyz and its website dirtyboyz.xxx have made the decision to close.

‘The new age verification system will be mostly run by large adult content companies which themselves host major “Tube” style porn sites.

‘Anyone seeking access to sites making money from porn will have to prove they are over 18 via these third party firms.

‘The government has given no safeguards about the privacy and security of users’ personal data and their credit card information.

‘It would force online readers of Dirtyboyz to publicly declare themselves.’

Policing the internet

Bridle is not the only one alarmed by the new law coming in 2019. Consumers of porn are concerned about potential data hacks, and what might happen if that information was to fall into the wrong hands – such as when users of the extra-marital affairs website Ashley Madison saw their info leaked online.

The changes will come just a few weeks after Tumblr announced that it was banning all adult content from its platform. That site was previously popular with many as a source of free, easy-to-view adult material.

What exactly is going on and what are the ramifications for LGBTI people wanting to watch pornography?

Porn site Dirty Boyz announced its closure ahead of the new UK online porn laws (Photo: Dirty Boyz)

Why is the UK introducing this law?

The UK’s Conservative government wants to make the internet a safer place for children. It wants to ensure it’s more difficult for minors to access adult content. This includes pornography.

Although most people agree with the aim, it’s how the government is going about it that is prompting some concern.

The new Online Pornography (Commercial Basis) Regulations are part of the Digital Economy Act 2017. However, it’s taken time to implement while the government settles on workable solutions.

Politicians now expect it to come into force early next year. Margot James MP, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) minister for digital and creative industries, said in November that she expects to give major porn sites three months notice. She hopes it will be in force by Easter 2019.

In the same way that websites showing pirated material are shut down, porn websites that don’t take steps to verify the age of viewers will be closed.

Once the act comes into force, the Government has tasked the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) with monitoring that the sites comply. The BBFC is the agency that gives age ratings to movies.

To prove their age, users will be able to take advantage of several verification systems. One of the government’s approved methods will be AgeID. This is a system run by MindGeek, one of the biggest companies behind internet porn. It owns PornHub, YouPorn and XTube, among others.

What websites will be affected and what proof of my age will be required?

The change will directly effect commercial porn websites. These will begin utilizing one of the age verification methods for users in the UK.

James Clark, Director of Communications at AgeID, told GSN what sort of proof would be needed.

‘We have been working with multiple third-party verifiers utilizing verification methods such as a Mobile SMS, credit card, passport and driving license. However, guidance pertaining to which age verification methods will be compliant with the law has yet to be ratified by parliament. Therefore AgeID will adapt once finalized.’

However, besides commercial porn sites, the impact on social media remains unclear. The Digital Economy Act allows them exemptions.

Although Tumblr recently announced it was removing adult content, and Facebook has also tightened up its community guidelines to bar ‘explicit sexual activity’, pornographic content remains rife on Twitter.

A Twitter spokesperson told GSN it was mindful of protecting young people from adult content. However, ‘There is no simple solution to age verification, and while Twitter is not a service that has a youthful audience, we still have a responsibility as an industry player to contribute to the overall health of the internet space.

‘For our part, Twitter bans adult content from advertising, and from live video, profile and header images. Safe search is also on by default. Meaning any sensitive media is hidden behind an interstitial advising viewers they will see sensitive media if they click through.’

Regardless of these safeguards, it remains very easy to look up any adult porn performer on Twitter and come across graphic content within a couple of clicks.

This is something the UK government may take further action against. It is planning to announce further legislation in its forthcoming Online Harms White Paper.

Is there anyway for people to get around this?

One of the other criticisms of the law is that there will be ways to cheat the system. You can use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) or similar software to make it look like you live in an unrestricted country.

Ironically, PornHub, owned by MindGeek, offers VPN technology to users which allows them to shield the country they’re in. Clark, of AgeID, said once the new UK laws come into effect, this will change.

‘VPNhub will not be available in the UK app stores without age verification, once the Act is enforced.’

What concerns people about this law change?

One of the groups critical of the new law is Open Rights Group. Its Executive Director, Jim Killock, told GSN the privacy of users needs protecting.

He wants tech companies and the government to ensure adults who choose to watch porn can browse anonymously. ‘[That] they can watch what they want with a reasonable expectation it is never going to be linked back to them.

‘The issue with age verification systems is that they need to know it’s you, which means there’s a strong likelihood that it will basically track you and know what you’re watching. And that’s data that could be very harmful to people.

‘It could cause issues in relationships. Or it could see children outed to their parents. It could mean people are subjected to scams and blackmail if that data falls into criminal hands.’

Flaws

Killock compares age verification online as similar to age verification to sell alcohol. Firstly, some determined youngsters will always find ways to buck the system. Therefore, he believes it’s vital to have conversations and educate about adult material, rather than place trust in age verification alone.

He also thinks creating an age verification system purely for porn is a flawed concept. Many simply won’t want to sign up for it.

‘If everybody had an age verification tool that they’d already set up, for instance to prove your age in a shop to buy alcohol, and then you were asked to use this in the context of porn, I think it would have a greater chance of succeeding and gaining user trust. More so than the idea that somebody visits a website in April next year or whenever and gets asked for their passport before visiting porn. That feels like something that people would not intuitively trust.

‘So we need to be worried about how this will work, and about how receptive people are really going to be to handing over sensitive information to watch intimate material.’

He also thinks the fact that some sites will still be able to show pornographic means the law will only ever be partly effective.

‘If you are a non-commercial sexual content blog, if you are just too small for the BBFC to care, or if you are a social media site, this doesn’t apply to you.

‘It also can’t possibly apply to file sharing sites, or user-to-user exchange material. So there’s a big question about efficacy here.’

‘Not a game you can win through prohibition’

In that sense, if the aim is to stop teenagers or younger people accessing adult material, does Killock think it’s simply impossible to censor the internet in this way?

‘It’s not a game you can win through prohibition,’ he says.

‘When people want to access material, when there’s demand, prohibition is not a tactic that gives a great deal of success.

‘That doesn’t make the policy completely wrong. It doesn’t mean the government is not trying to do a good thing. And it doesn’t mean that pornography is never harmful. But it does mean relying on these techniques isn’t a great idea.

‘It’s not going to stop people using USB sticks to share materials. And in many ways the risk to children from exchanging material between each other or online file sharing sites might be more risky and harder to police than them accessing adult content that they shouldn’t.

‘So even with a policy like this you come back to the basic question that young people need education and they need to understand the context of porn and they need to understand the risks they’re taking.

‘We should approach this rather like we do alcohol and drugs, and expect that despite the existence of laws and prohibitions, teenagers may not obey the rules. And when they don’t, as we should expect them not to, we need them to still be able to handle those situations well.’

Government response

To address some of the concerns about data leaks, the Government and BBFC have set up a voluntary certification scheme that age verification providers can sign up to to assure users their data is safe. The BBFC will carry details of approved age verification systems on its website.

However, Killock criticizes the fact the certification scheme is voluntary and precise details remain unclear.

A spokesperson for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) told Gay Star News, ‘Pornographic websites and age verification services will be subject to the UK’s existing high standard of data protection legislation.

‘The Data Protection Act 2018 provides a comprehensive and modern framework for data protection, with strong sanctions for malpractice and enforced by the Information Commissioner’s Office.

It refutes the suggestion it is relying on age verification alone to keep children safe.

‘Online pornography is currently easily accessible and we are introducing measures to protect children from this.

‘The Digital Economy Act is an important step to ensure that pornographic websites either act responsibly or face the consequences, but it is not a panacea. It will go hand in hand with the other ways in which children are kept safe online.’

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