The word “pornography” has become an obstacle to understanding. To many people, perhaps particularly slightly older individuals who are not regular internet users, it conjures up memories of Playboy centrefolds and Health & Efficiency magazine.
A bit of fun. Never did me any harm. Don’t be such a prude. Might actually be helpful.
People who say things like that just have no idea what is being peddled in cyberspace today. And it’s all free, available 24/7. The publishers make their money by persuading only a tiny minority of visitors to buy extra services. The rest is marketing.
What the law says
Under English case law any site which publishes hard core pornography is meant to have an age verification system in place to keep out sub-18 year olds.
Anybody who thinks the law is foolish and that the material on display, in a giggly, slightly naughty but essentially innocent way, might be useful to youngsters, perhaps deprived of alternative sources of information about sex, is hugely wide of the mark. On the contrary these sites are contributing to an increasingly coarse, brutalised, sexualised culture which puts pressure, particularly on girls but also on young men, to behave like porn stars.
ATVOD steps up
Last week the Association for TV On Demand (ATVOD) published the results of a pioneering study which examined whether or to what extent children and young people between the ages of six and 17 were nonetheless able to access such sites.
The research methodology employed was similar to that used to measure TV viewing figures. The work was carried out by Nielsens. They looked only at access via PCs and laptops, in other words they excluded smartphones and handheld devices. Had these been included there seems little doubt the results would have been different and worse.
In a single month
The period examined was a single month, December, 2013. ATVOD identified 1,266 porn websites which were being visited by UK users. Only one of these was a service regulated in the UK.
Here is ATVOD’s shocking summary:
(This survey) provides the most authoritative picture yet established of the exposure of children and young people to “R18” material. “R18” is the classification of the strongest legal video pornography permitted in Britain and covers content which, on a DVD, can be found only in a licensed sex shop or cinema and is restricted to buyers 18 or over. It portrays a range of real, rather than simulated, sex acts.
At least 44,000 primary school children accessed an adult website… that is one in 35 of six to 11 year-olds in the UK going online.
200,000 under-16’s accessed an adult website from a computer. This is one in 16 children in that age group who went online in the same month…..
One in five teenage boys under 18 going online were clicking on porn websites from a PC, and one adult site – which offers free, unrestricted access to thousands of hardcore porn videos – attracted 112,000 of these teenagers.
…..at least 473,000 children between the ages of six and 17 accessed an adult internet service, mostly offshore – one in ten of young people that age who went online.
Pusillanimous banks and credit card companies
ATVOD’s suggestion was that the credit card companies, and the banks that own them, should stop processing payments to the identified sites. The financial institutions expressed sympathy but they said they wanted fresh legislation to hold them harmless of any claims. In other words they refused to act.
Such pusillanimity is disappointing. I seriously doubt the banks and credit card companies need any legislation to pull the plug on payments to sites which are demonstrably breaking the law. Quite the opposite. Could it not be argued the banks and credit card companies are themselves committing an offence? By allowing these sites to use their payments systems are they not aiding and abetting the commission of a crime? Are they not helping to sustain sites that are harming our children?
Government’s weak response
When ATVOD’s numbers came out there was a suggestion from the government that the recently announced policy on internet filters would deal with the problem of keeping under-18s away. The filters definitely will help but the implication was nothing else needed to be done. Wrong. The filters should act as a backstop not as the first line of defence.
I have no problem with Parliament stepping in to put the matter beyond peradventure, but really? As far as the banks and credit card companies are concerned if it were a site selling drugs or guns what would happen? They act against sites using their logo in connection with child abuse images and WikiLeaks showed they could be galvanised if they thought the issue was sufficiently important or were put under enough pressure.
What should the new law say?
The Crown Prosecution Service has been reluctant to authorise actions against hard core porn web sites under the Obscene Publication Act. They say juries do not want to convict. That being so, the answer is obvious. Remove the need to bring obscenity charges. Create a new regulatory offence. Web site owners would be required to show they had a robust age verification mechanism in place. Not having one would be a crime. This is not so very different from what we already do with online gambling web sites.
Because most of the owners of the porn sites in question reside overseas the penalties for the proposed new offence would have to be sufficiently severe to allow extradition treaties to be invoked to bring people to the UK to face trial in our courts.
Such a new law could also make clear that companies providing any sort of service in connection with the provision of an online hard core pornography web site e.g. a bank or credit card company, an advertising agency, a web hosting company or domain name supplier for that matter, would need to satisfy itself that the site was complying with the age verification law otherwise they too would be committing an offence.
That should do the trick.