Anonymity and porn

S1 (1) of the Obscene Publications Act, 1959, defines what constitutes a criminally obscene article. In the Court of Criminal Appeals in 2002, in the case of  R v Perrin, in the context of  material published on the internet, failure to take steps to prevent children from viewing such material was seen as a key ingredient in determining whether or not an offence under the Act had been committed.

However, to the best of my knowledge, since Perrin there have been no prosecutions of web site owners who publish pornography without an age verification mechanism in place. Why? Because of the practical and jurisdictional issues of enforcement. The relevant sections of the  Digital Economy Bill, 2016, can therefore be viewed as a pragmatic attempt to find a solution to fit modern circumstances. Yet some people are raising concerns. I understand why, but their fears are unfounded.

In the recent debate on the  Digital Economy Bill Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake made the following point

I agree that denying children access to online pornography is essential, as is ensuring the privacy of adult users of legal adult sites….

In a similar vein the former Secretary of State, John Whittingdale, said

The other big issue covered by the Bill is pornography….and age verification. The Bill does not specify how age can be verified, and I must say that I am not entirely sure how the providers will do that. It will not be sufficient to include the question “Are you 18?”, along with a box to be ticked……

We must bear it in mind that the content that is being accessed is perfectly legal. Of course it is right for children to be prevented from accessing it, because that can be harmful, but it is legal content for adults……

There are a number of things to be said about this.

First of all at the moment unless someone takes special measures to prevent their browsers from handing over any information about them or their machine then it is extremely likely that in the mere act of visiting a porn site, even if you do not buy or actively download anything, you are in truth handing over data about yourself. This compromises your anonymity. I leave aside the possibility of any third-party surveillance that might be taking place on top of that.

Moreover unless Messrs Whittingdale  and Brake want to argue we should get rid of the existing real world laws altogether they need to convince us why, if it were to come down to a straight choice,  they might think it more important to protect adults’ rights to access porn anonymously than it is to keep harmful content away from kids.

Technology to the rescue

However, the good news for Brake and Whittingdale is that nobody has to make such a choice. Remember, unlike gambling sites a porn company does not need your bank or credit or debit card details or your home address. Porn sites only have to establish that you are 18 or above.

Technologies already exist which can prove someone is over 18 without revealing anything else at all.  In this sense the technology could be seen as being privacy enhancing.

Of course the companies that own the age verification systems have to do an initial verification of your age so it is vital that they are trustworthy and secure to the nth degree. There are several ways in which it can be established whether or not that is the case e.g. the Information Commissioner’s Office could tell us.

About John Carr

John Carr is a member of the Executive Board of the UK Council on Child Internet Safety, the British Government's principal advisory body for online safety and security for children and young people. In the summer of 2013 he was appointed as an adviser to Bangkok-based ECPAT International. Amongst other things John is or has been a Senior Expert Adviser to the United Nations, ITU, the European Union, a member of the Executive Board of the European NGO Alliance for Child Safety Online, Secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. John has advised many of the world's largest internet companies on online child safety. In June, 2012, John was appointed a Visiting Senior Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science. More: http://johncarrcv.blogspot.com
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