Watching your porn

Critics cite privacy concerns as UK considers age verification law for porn sites

Porn watchers may soon be tracked in the UK

The United Kingdom is debating the introduction of a law that would require porn websites to verify users’ age before giving them access to the content. Besides the privacy concerns, activists worry the new law might be extended beyond porn sites to general services that distribute adult content, like Twitter and Google.

Activists dressed in bondage gear staged the Kink Olympixxx outside the U.K. Houses of Parliament this week to protest the Digital Economy Bill, the controversial proposed law, which aims to protect children by demanding that all pornographic websites verify the age of users based in the U.K.

The bill, now being debated before Parliament, could have a big impact on how the internet works in the U.K., but it’s not getting much attention amid the all-encompassing focus on post-Brexit matters.

What is the Digital Economy Bill?

The wide-ranging piece of legislation promises to introduce a legal right to minimum internet-download speeds, and adds new punishments for piracy and tougher penalties for nuisance calls, among other things.

It’s part 3 of the Digital Economy Bill that has caused the most controversy, It calls for an age verification system to “prevent access by persons under the age of 18” to “pornographic material available on the internet on a commercial basis” but doesn’t define what it means by “pornographic material.”

What does it mean for the U.K. public?

Starting in 2017, when the bill is expected to become law, users in the U.K. who go to a porn website will be asked to verify their age before gaining access to the site’s content. The requirement wouldn’t apply to people accessing U.K. sites from other countries.

Any website — whether located in the U.K. or abroad — would have to abide by the ruling. U.K.-based sites face fines of up to £250,000 ($306,000) while those based outside the country could be penalized by being delisted on search engines like Google in the U.K., or have credit card companies like Visa stop processing payments on the site.

Who’s going to oversee this system?

The regulator assigned to oversee this new system is the British Board of Film Classification, yet it will have no say in how the age verification system is implemented. It’s simply there to ensure websites comply.

How porn purveyors would establish a person’s identity has yet to be explained, but it will be the responsibility of each website to ensure they meet the standards set out in the bill.

This means that each website will need to come up with its own solution or use a third party that specializes in age verification.

How will I verify my age?

Among numerous proposals, some were demonstrated last week by the Adult Provider Network, an adult industry trade association formed in August to coordinate responses to the bill.

According to Alec Muffett, a former Facebook engineer and board member of the Open Rights Group, one solution offered by the company Verifu would require access to your Facebook profile. The engineer deemed such a proposal as “misconceived, gratuitous, disproportionate, and risky.”

Other solutions include providing credit card numbers or mobile phone accounts, which have previously been verified with passports or driver’s licenses, in order to access porn.

Will it really protect kids from porn?

Not likely. Through services like proxies and VPNs that anonymize your location, anyone with a relatively moderate level of technical knowledge will be able to access the sites from within the U.K. without having to verify their age.

“As with web filtering, there’s no evidence that age verification will prevent an even slightly determined teenager from accessing pornography, nor reduce demand for it among young people,” Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, said.

What about my personal data?

The aim of the system may be to protect children, but what about users’ privacy, when they have to hand over sensitive personal information to a third party.

“There is no prohibition on how they use your personal data,” Myles Jackman, an obscenity lawyer and activist, told VICE News. Jackman was addressing companies that will be tasked with collecting the information on those seeking access to porn sites.

The BBFC, the oversight regulator, has not yet had any privacy or security duties imposed on them under the bill, so the government is apparently giving responsibility for this data to third-party commercial interests, Jackman added.

Muffett notes how such databases could cause big problems for high-profile users. “A high price would be paid by tabloid newspapers for a list enumerating the porn preferences of the Manchester United first eleven.”

What protections are being put in place?

When asked about protections the law would put in place to ensure data collected by third-party services would be secure, the bill’s proponents pointed to a Draft BSI Security Standard (Draft PAS 1296:2017), a standard originally designed to prevent those under 18 from buying knives.

The standard has now been taken offline, but before it was removed Muffett live-tweeted a reading of the document, highlighting the fact that it requires every user to be assigned a unique ID number to be used across services. He also pointed out that it uses 10-year-old statistics to back up its requirements.

Could this impact the rest of the internet?

Yes. Because pornographic imagery and videos can be accessed through a wide range of online services, these, too, could be forced to verify the age of their users. It could impact such popular services as Google, Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter.

David Austin, chief executive of the BBFC, gave evidence to Parliament suggesting the impact of the age verification system could extend well beyond porn websites.

“Those are organizations whose work facilitates and enables the pornography to be distributed,” Austin said before the Public Bill Committee last week. “There is certainly a case to argue that social media such as Twitter are ancillary service providers. There are Twitter-account holders who provide pornography on Twitter, so I think you could definitely argue that.”

M-F 7:30PM HBO