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The Dark Side of the Digital Economy Bill

The Dark Side of the Digital Economy Bill

The Digital Economy Bill

It hasn’t attracted much media attention, but the Digital Economy Bill has received Royal Assent. Of concern to privacy campaigners is Section 3, which regulates pornographic content online.

Porn is a contentious issue. Some would like to see it banned entirely. Others are mostly concerned with its effects on children. Whatever one’s stance, the fact is that a significant proportion of the UK adult population watches pornography with some degree of regularity. It is legal, although viewing certain types is not. The DEB seeks to regulate online pornography to bring it in line with offline regulations.

On the surface, there doesn’t seem to be much wrong with this goal. It does indeed seem strange that to acquire adult content offline is harder than it is online. One could also draw a correlation between ease of access and rise in consumption. Although the effects on children have not been adequately measured yet, it also seems both reasonable and sensible to restrict their access. Unfortunately, the DEB’s attempts to bring forth regulation are fundamentally flawed and potentially dangerous.

Creating a Hacker’s Dream

The DEB requires adult content providers (or porn sites, if you like) to verify their user’s ages. On paysites, a user is unlikely to see any real change. On free sites, however, there will be a requirement that UK users are vetted. The first problem with this is that you can bypass this requirement by turning on a VPN. While it is possible for sites to block VPNs, let’s not pretend that adult websites have much interest in spending their slim revenues to prevent access. It would be contrary to their business model. Thus, anyone with basic technical knowledge can skip the age-check entirely; and let’s stop pretending kids are naïve about tech. Whoops.

The second problem is that there are absolutely no privacy requirements. Users who verify their age can have their data collected, their viewing habits recorded and that data sold on to third-parties. Similarly, users could find that their viewing habits are logged in databases that are then hacked. This information could easily be used for the purposes of blackmail (as happened with the Ashley Madison breach) or simply dumped on the Internet for public humiliation.

Of real concern should be the potential for vulnerable people to suffer due to this legislation. Those who are forced to hide their sexuality due to religion or other such cultural concerns risk being outed and facing the repercussions that come with that. This is a potentially deadly oversight.

When Legal Content is Illegal

The DEB also wants sites to block access to legal content. UK based pornographers are already banned from depicting what many consider to be relatively harmless acts. The legislators have not ruled it illegal to view this material, but they expect websites to prevent people nonetheless. Once we go down the road of censoring legal content, we reach a point where censorship of anything is considered fair game. That’s a problem.

Let us also think of the children. After all, ostensibly, this is a child protection issue. Blocking access to websites will not deter the average tech-savvy child from viewing pornography. Once one child in a peer group knows, his or her friends will soon follow suit. Porn can be found on Twitter, Tumblr, Dailymotion and a whole host of sites that are not pornographic in intent.

More worryingly, porn is rife on torrents which are where most kids already go to download their rips of Game of Thrones. You’re not going to stop children viewing porn online; you’re simply going to move them elsewhere. I dare say that although there is some very dark content on PornHub, there is some fucking evil shit on torrents.

Complex Issues Require Sensible Solutions

Unfortunately, pointing out flaws in such legislation is often countered with accusations that one is some sort of super-liberal apologist for pornography. I have tried to explain these issues to be people, only for them to argue that I’m advocating for no child protection. That isn’t the case. I would say that child welfare is necessary, but this is a rash, ill-thought strategy to do it that causes more problems than it solves.

No strategy will be foolproof; I’ll make that clear. However, there are better tools to implement reasonable safeguards. For example, to force the millions of adult sites to vet their users, someone will have to catalogue them. If you’ve catalogued them, it would not be that difficult to build a central database of adult content providers. From there, it would not be difficult to provide tools to ISP customers to block websites. Such a programme already exists, however, it has been poorly advertised and implemented. Sites for non-pornographic content are blocked by these filters, resulting in most people turning them off. D’oh!

However, that doesn’t mean the logic itself is flawed, only the implementation. Less than 30% of UK households contain children, so it seems unnecessary to vet every Internet user. That is unless your plan is to start tracking every Internet user – but our government wouldn’t do that, would they? Oh yes, that’s right, they already did.

Education, Education, Education – As Someone Once Said

Regardless, educating the parents about the tools available to them places the power in adult hands. Such a scheme significantly reduces the misuse of personal data by marketers and cyber criminals, while accomplishing similar levels of child protection. Any such programme could be expanded to specifically, at a user’s request, block access to torrents or any other website they were uncomfortable with their children visiting.

Were this all combined with a comprehensive and thorough programme of sex and relationship education in school, focusing heavily on how pornography is not always a realistic depiction of sex, then we would be doing a lot more to protect both children and adults.

Sadly, this is the UK Government, and in the UK we have a tendency to allow moral panic and outrage to triumph over reason. The Obscene Publications Act, the Video Recordings Act, the Investigatory Powers Act, etc. It seems our government is always looking for a quick, simple solution with no thought offered to its downsides or practicalities. For that reason, this piece of legislation will soon become law and it is only a matter of time before innocent smut viewers suffer the consequences.

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