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The UK Porn Block Never-Ending Farce

Published by Papa Whale Affiliate Marketing

Under the UK porn block, citizens would have been required to confirm their age before being granted access to online pornography. Here's what changed.

Last year, we warned affiliates about the UK’s desire to introduce controversial mandatory age-verification systems which were set to roll out April 2018 for online porn visitors. 

Such a decision was met with immediate backlash by pretty much everyone including privacy advocates, consumers and the porn industry itself. Furthermore, the UK government’s lack of preparation became crystal clear soon thereafter that it was unable to handle that huge of a change within the allocated time, which unsurprisingly led to its first delay.

Meanwhile, you can bet affiliates and adult industry leaders alike scrambled to avoid getting caught flat-footed by this new regulation. 

On July 15th, 2019, the UK porn block was set to be in full swing. However, as it turned out, a 15-month delay proved insufficient. This time, Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright told us its government had failed to disclose key elements of its age-verification scheme to European regulators

Whew. This fresh delay has really put things into perspective. Incompetence aside, the whole UK porn block debacle has shed light on an inconvenient truth authorities have no clue how to properly address.

Why a porn block in the first place?

In 2012, a team of researchers reviewed literature regarding the impact of Internet pornography on adolescents (you can read the 122-page PDF here). They were most curious about the lasting effects—if any—of being exposed to X-rated content at a young age and how it could reflect on sexual attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, and sexual aggression. 

The team concluded that “youth today who consume pornography may develop unrealistic sexual values and beliefs.” Other troubling concerns linked to early on consumption and exposure of pornagraphy has emerged

This may include:

  • Poor self-esteem (girls feel less attractive and boys have performance anxiety)
  • Lower social integration
  • Increases in conduct problems
  • Higher levels of delinquent behavior
  • Higher incidence of depressive symptoms
  • Decreased emotional bonding with caregivers

In 2017, new legislation aiming for the complete “protection of children from pornographic content online” was introduced under Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act

If that sounds overly dramatic, it’s because it is. Like other laws that used the “won’t somebody think of the children” tactic in years past, this is a deep-rooted problem at its core that’s merely being wrapped in a fear induced package.

How will the UK porn block affect UK citizens?

As soon as the new deadline is reached (6 months from now at the time of this post), porn websites will require by law that all Internet users with a UK-based IP address verify their age.

This will be achieved by first displaying a splash screen to UK visitors trying to access adult entertainment websites—even if they’re hosted offshore.

The splash screen will have to be safe for work (i.e. no adult content) and warn UK visitors that they need to complete an age check before they can proceed any further.

Providers are kinda left to fend for themselves

The age-verification process will fall into the hands of porn companies and not the British Board of Film Classification. In fact, the BBFC hasn’t approved any official age verification partners as of yet despite being in charge of issuing Age-verification Certificates (AVs).

Since the certification scheme isn’t mandatory, don’t expect providers to be in any kind of a mad rush to feel compelled to offer age-verification right away, especially over a pretty useless trust badge.

Which, let’s face it… it’s quite ironic if you think about it. Porn companies will effectively have to start making their own educated choices, at least until a greenlit list of age-verification partners is published. 

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t existing high age-verification standards provided under the Digital Economy Act. The BBFC outlines all the criteria providers must be aware of in its official guide

The short version is that providers need to put “robust and effective” age-verification into place and collect only bare minimum personal data

Providers who fail to comply will be sent a first notice. If the situation isn’t fixed, they will face a hefty bill that can go up to £250,000, become blocked in the UK or both.

How would UK citizens be able to verify their age?

So, with a porn block looming far in the distance, how will UK citizens be able to adapt? When (not if) such a weird law becomes reality, they’ll need to prove they’re 18 years or older with an age-verification system, the most famous being MindGeek’s AgeID. However, popularity comes at a steep price for providers: anywhere from $200 to $15,000 per month, depending on traffic. 

Another option is AVSecure which promises unseen levels of anonymity made possible with cryptography. “AVSecure can’t track users as the blockchain generates a new random key at each instance.” The age-verification process is simple; users only need to scan an official document (driving licence, debit card, passport, etc.) once. AVSecure is free and already used in the pharmaceutical and gambling industries. 

Other solutions have jumped in, for instance Yoti—a popular app used for age-verification in a number of businesses like nightclubs. Yoti is also behind the Prove My Age software already used to access adult content. Their technology allows to confirm your age by either uploading an official document or, interestingly enough, by taking a selfie and having the Age Scan technology determine how old you are. Yoti has a fixed price of £0.15 per age-verification check. 

Lastly, UK citizens might be tempted to buy a Portes Card, commonly known as the “porn pass.” It’s pretty simple: a customer shows up in a store, shows his ID to a merchant and gets a pass (voucher number) in return, which can then be uploaded online through an app. This confirms he or she is 18 years of older without handing out any personal data. The cost? $6.50 for a single device or $11.80 for multiple devices.

Main concerns with the UK porn block

The aforementioned AgeID age-verification system is owned by MindGeek, the porn industry’s magnate and owner of PornHub, RedTube and YouPorn to name a few. Critics raised concerns about the possible conflict of interest at hand and the immense power that would be entrusted into a single company. 

With billions of visitors from all around the world flocking to its large portfolio of pornographic websites each month, MindGeek already has a tight grip on the industry. If AgeID becomes the de facto age-verification system for adult websites, experts warned it could potentially lead to an unprecedented data breach from involved third-parties. Not to speak of the monopolistic value of such a move.

Even with the best of intentions, businesses make mistakes. In this particular case, the rippling effects would be massive. Porn habits being exposed online for millions of users is a scary thought, just as the prospect of using personal preferences to serve laser-focused ads. At the end of the day, businesses are attracted to money like sharks to blood in the water.  

At least, director of communications for AgeID James Clark stressed that “AgeID does not store any personal data input by users during the age verification process, such as name, address, phone number, date of birth. As we do not collect such data, it cannot be leaked, marketed to, or used in any way.” Though such a statement did little to soothe the fears of privacy advocates. 

The stakes are very high should anything happen. And we all know how “unhackable” and “unleakable” technology can turn out to be. Remember Ashley Madison? AgeID might turn out to be bulletproof, but what about other age-verification tools? It’s like a sword of Damocles hanging over our collective heads, ready to strike at a moment’s notice.

The UK porn block’s biggest concern is indeed privacy and more broadly Internet freedom. This sets a dangerous precedent that could easily be abused: who says the BBFC will stop at pornography? Will other countries be tempted to follow suit, all under the guise of protecting children?

VPNs are an obvious trick to an ambiguous problem

The new law will be easily circumvented with the help of a Virtual Private Network (VPN). Affordable and widely available, VPNs encrypt then rout user data using proxy servers. Can’t get enough of face-sitting on PornHub despite UK’s censorship in the matter? Use a VPN to browse from any other GEO’s IP. Dead easy, even for the less tech-savvy.

As the adoption rate of such solutions is on the rise amid a fragmented Internet (if only to ignore geo-blocking), we can question if the law will really achieve its goal here of protecting children from the harms of online pornography. 

ISPs will have to crack down on non-compliant sites

Internet Service Providers (ISPs) will be tasked to enforce the UK porn law by blocking non-compliant adult websites. On the surface, it seems like parents shy from their responsibilities only to leave them into the state’s hands. 

A safeguard is already in place right now with network-level filtering systems, which begs the question of why this level of interventionism is needed.

Fortunately, ISP blocks will be used as a last resort. Most adult websites are expected to comply when the law comes into effect.  

By the time an ISP actually takes action, the damage is already done. So what you’re doing is effectively playing whack-a-mole. The BBFC, as a regulator, will remain at the frontline of an unwinnable war.

The ⅓ fallacy

Websites that are not primarily used for porn (less than one third of their content) won’t be in the government’s crosshairs. 

How will this be calculated is anyone’s guess. What matters is that social platforms like Reddit, SnapChat and Twitter will fall through the cracks despite having their fair share of adult content if you dig around. So much for protecting children!

When all is said and done

The UK porn block is the equivalent of a walking disaster. 

The BBFC is trying to put out a fire by throwing gas on it, which will have a major impact not only for users (if only as a nuisance), but also providers, affiliates and yes, even affiliate networks. 

Knowing how easy it will be for minors to bypass such a law with either VPNs or social media, it really seems foolish to think it will make a huge difference. 

What do you think of the UK porn block? Let us know in the comments!

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