Community values trump dead Utopian vision

The debate taking place in the UK about the introduction of age verification for pornography sites is, so to speak, exposing a number of very strange arguments. Some are advanced by people such as the Open Rights Group (ORG) who are flailing around looking for any and every reason to be against the government’s proposals.

Entering into the spirit of the “post-truth age” which we all now seem to be living in, neither is the ORG averse to rearranging or distorting the facts. For example, in their opening salvos they spoke about the government planning to ban “erotica”. Untrue.  That word does not  appear anywhere in the Digital Economy Bill.  Moreover the BBFC is the body that will have the responsibility for implementing the legislation, and they know where to draw the line between erotica and pornography even if the ORG doesn’t.

We were told every type of pornography site is being hit. Incorrect. Only commercial sites operating on a significant scale will be subject to the legislation. Anyone who read the draft legislation would have seen that. The words are clear. So either ORG didn’t read the Bill or they did and chose to misrepresent the position.

Then in an interview in The Guardian we were informed that if Parliament passes the Bill with the age verification clauses in it we will be putting ourselves alongside Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Excuse me? In Saudi Arabia the intention is to deny access to pornography to everyone. That is not the case here. All the UK is trying to do is restrict access by children, in accordance with our existing laws.  Trying to establish guilt by  the smear of association is a desperate tactic at the best of times but when it is also based on a fiction it just seems, well, pathetic.

However, if only by accident the ORG has hit on a couple of points where I think they are on to something. One I agree with, the other I most decidedly do not. Let’s go with the latter first.

There are four types of pornographic material circulating on the internet. One is straightforwardly and indisputably illegal: child abuse images, and we already have a good way of dealing with them.   They are not at issue here.The second  is material which can be viewed in public cinemas or bought over the internet. It has been classified as 18 by the BBFC. Sites displaying this type of material will be caught by the new law. That’s logical.

Next is material which has been rated R18. Under our current law this should only be sold on the premises of licenced sex shops to persons over the age of 18. Yet it is always available online on commercial pornography sites. It shouldn’t be but given the practical difficulties – the very reasons why the Bill has been brought forward  – there have never been any prosecutions. It is a law honoured in the breach more than in the observance.

In the case of R 18 the UK government, in effect, is proposing to liberalise the law because in future such material will be lawfully available online on sites which have age verification. I’m ok with that.

Finally we have material which is so extreme or disgusting that the BBFC refuses it any kind of classification or it is illegal anyway under some other heading. I am not going to go into detail on a family show but if you want to know more you could do worse than look here.  Henceforth this will be known as “prohibited material” and it looks like it too will have to go before a porn site can be given the age verification seal of approval although I can see there is a legitimate case to be argued about what should and should not be included in the “prohibited” category.

I know the internet utopians hate to hear this but the internet today is a family medium or a family service as much as it is anything else and the rules of the road are going to have to reflect that.  John Perry Barlow’s vision hasn’t worked. That shimmering image has evaporated. Get over it and don’t blame child protection advocates.

The argument is about the supremacy of community values  over techno-determinism. The UK should be able to have the internet it wants for its children. I believe that up to now the UK has been failing in its legal  obligations to protect children by not having an age verification law of the kind being proposed. But, hey….that will soon be behind us so let’s not dwell on it.

Where do I align with ORG and its friends?

The core of my argument is around protecting children from age inappropriate material. On questions of privacy I think any and all solutions which are to be deployed to carry out age verification should be privacy friendly, privacy compliant and scam-proof. Although I am a member of the BBFC’s children’s viewing advisory panel  I am not privvy to their plans or thinking on this aspect but I would very much like to see some sort of arrangement  emerge which involves the Office of the Information Commissioner being given a role in deciding which age verification solutions are acceptable and which are not. I have grave reservations about simply using credit cards.

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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