LONDON: Pornography websites that fail to implement stringent age verification controls could be blocked from British users after MPs forced the government to strengthen planned measures to prevent children accessing such content. The culture secretary, Karen Bradley, said the move would protect children from “harmful pornographic content” and fulfil a Conservative manifesto promise. Ministers had previously said such a measure would be disproportionate. The move has widespread support from child safety campaigners and the general public. An ICM poll, commissioned by Durham University’s centre for gender-equal media and published last month, found 78% of respondents backed blocks on adult websites that allowed under-18s to access their content. Age verification had the backing of 86%.
The rules, to be enforced by the British Board of Film Classification, will apply to all websites regardless of where they are based. The government says they comply with EU country of origin rules. Digital rights campaigners, however, say the measure has no equivalent in any other democratic country, while free speech advocates say it could be the start of a slippery slope towards ever greater censorship. Together with the online surveillance powers introduced by the Investigatory Powers Act this week, it constitutes a significant tightening of control over the internet. Bradley said: “We made a promise to keep children safe from harmful pornographic content online and that is exactly what we are doing. Only adults should be allowed to view such content and we have appointed a regulator, BBFC, to make sure the right age checks are in place to make that happen. If sites refuse to comply, they should be blocked.
“In fulfilling this manifesto commitment and working closely with people like [MPs] Claire Perry and Kit Malthouse, who have worked tirelessly on internet safety issues, we are protecting children from the consequences of harmful content.” The measure will be introduced as an amendment to the digital economy bill. It comes after the Labour MP Louise Haigh introduced her own amendment in the bill’s committee stage, calling for non-compliant websites to be blocked. She withdrew the amendment in the face of ministerial opposition, but a new amendment was introduced by Perry, a Conservative, at the report stage. It was expected to be passed by a cross-party coalition of MPs after Perry threatened to split the Tory vote and defeat the government, Haigh told. “[Perry] was obviously feeling a bit feisty and she told them that she was going to divide the house,” she said. “There was going to be a vote on Monday. She had enough Tory backbenchers to defeat the government.”
According to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the rules will give the BBFC the power to issue a notice to internet service providers, and those that cover mobile network operators, to prevent access to websites that have no or inadequate age verification for pornography. The details of the amendment are still being worked out. The original bill already gave regulators powers to issue fines of up to £250,000, or 5% of turnover, while websites outside British jurisdiction would have UK customer payments via services such as Visa and MasterCard cut off. Ministers were also seeking cooperation from other services that support websites, such as servers, to clamp down on those that fail to comply. Jim Killock, the executive director of the Open Rights Group, which has campaigned against the blocking of websites, said doing so for online pornography was an “outrageous” measure that put the UK in the company of countries such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
“It’s clearly because they [the government] think they might suffer a defeat, not because they think this is a workable policy,” he said. “What it will lead to is the blocking of a large amount of legal content, and many of those sites will have little or no incentive to use the UK’s bespoke age verification system, with the result that large amounts of material will be blocked to UK adults, despite the material being entirely legal to impart and receive.” Killock said children, especially teenagers, were unlikely to find the blocks a barrier to viewing pornography because “they will find their own ways around it”. Jerry Barnett, a free speech campaigner whose book, Porn Panic!, details an increasingly illiberal attitude towards pornography in the UK, said he believed the censorship introduced by the bill would undoubtedly extend beyond its current remit, “partly because the language is very slippery”. “Sometimes they say ‘porn’, by which they mean all sex, erotica, etc; but sometimes they use ‘adult content’, which is a far broader term, and they start going on about knife sales or self-harm sites, drug information sites,” he said. “And if you look at the BBFC’s remit, what the BBFC believes it’s here to protect us from, porn is one of a number of categories.
“Porn, sex and erotica is absolutely the first target, but I can’t see in any way, shape or form that they won’t extend it because both the BBFC, for video, and Ofcom, for TV, have given themselves an incredibly broad censorship remit when it comes to child protection, and porn is just one of the categories.” Research commissioned by the NSPCC and the children’s commissioner for England found that the majority of children are exposed to pornography by their early teens. Fifty-three per cent of 11 to 16-year-olds have encountered it online, of whom 94% saw it by the age of 14, according to the Middlesex University study. The NSPCC said a generation of children was at risk of being “stripped of their childhoods” through exposure to pornography at a young age.