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The UK porn block is now one month away, and it's still a terrible idea

The controversial UK porn block comes into effect on July 15 2019. According to the government it’s going to save the children from online awfulness, and there won’t be any negative effects whatsoever.

But I just know it’s all going to end up like my sex life – a combination of severe disappointment, intense embarrassment and a terrible mess. So it’s worrying that nobody seems to be paying attention to what's coming down the tracks.

Porn in the USA (but not the UK) 

The UK porn block is based on the belief that if we make porn slightly harder to access, kids – and in this case "kids" includes 16 and 17-year-olds, which of course means they’ve reached the age of consent – won’t see any of it by accident, and can't see it even if they try.

As you may be aware, there’s a lot of porn on the internet. And as you may also be aware, very little of that is made in the UK. So while we can demand overseas sites implement all kinds of things, they can tell us to go whistle.

Aha! The UK government says. We’ve thought of that!

And they have. Sites that don’t implement age verification will be blocked. 

Remember how blocking the Pirate Bay stopped all piracy forever?

Exactly.

And that’s not the worst of it. 

A pandora's box of privacy issues 

Whenever somebody suggests a new law, we should ask two questions: one, will it solve the problem? And two, is it going to hurt? I think in those case the answers are “no” and “not in a good way” respectively.

We call it the UK porn block, but it isn’t really a block – that comes later. The law creates a mandatory age verification regime. When you visit a website and it identifies you as a UK visitor, you’ll be asked to prove your age. No proof, no porn.

As a bad comedian might put it: you’ve heard of cookie consent; this is nookie consent. 

The problem with age verification is simple: unless you buy a kind of porn pass in the local newsagent, which will apparently only work for a single device, it ties your real world photo ID to the porn sites you visit. In some cases just the URL of a site may make it very clear what your sexual orientation is and what your sexual preferences are. Do you really want that to end up on a government-mandated database? The data may be anonymised, but that doesn’t mean it’s anonymous.

We may think of ourselves as pretty enlightened about this stuff. After all, everybody’s turned their social media banners into rainbows to mark Pride Month. But the reality is that for many people, their sexuality, gender identity or sexual preferences can be used to hurt them. For example, LGBT+ people are abused and hounded online and off, while newspapers take great delight in kink-shaming and pillorying anyone with the slightest public profile who doesn’t stick to the missionary position.

That means the existence of any database of people’s porn preferences is worrying, because if the information gets out it can damage people’s lives. The schoolteacher who’s into some harmless kink. The LGBT+ teen who hasn’t come out yet. The crusading journalist the government wants to discredit. The businessman someone wants to blackmail. You get the idea.

Massive data breaches are so common we barely notice them any more, and if a system can be abused it usually is. If we can’t even trust the police not to abuse the Police National Computer, why should we trust companies located far beyond Europe and beyond the reach of our data protection regulation? 

Will they share their data with, say, the Home Office if they’re asked to? How long before some enterprising lawyer sees the potential? We’ve already seen fitness trackers’ location data used in divorce cases. Fancy discussing clown porn in court?

It’ll take more than Viagra to make this stand up 

Maybe I’m spending too much time in a tinfoil hat. But even if there were no privacy concerns, the UK is trying to make and enforce a system that won’t work.

We already block porn to try and keep it from kids, and the UK government says that that blocking isn’t effective. The solution? Block sites that don’t introduce age verification. “Filtering doesn’t work! Let’s do more of it!”

The UK porn block is very limited. It only applies to sites designed to make money from sales, subscriptions or ads where more than a third of their content is commercial pornography. It won’t affect social media at all, although it could encourage them to kick off people making perfectly legal adult content. 

It places an incredible burden on the BBFC, which has to decide which overseas sites count as pornography. And there are the usual risks of overblocking and mistaken blocking.

And then, of course, there are VPNs.

It’s safe to say the makers of VPN software are feeling pretty aroused right now. Sites will detect UK users by their IP address; use a VPN service and you’re immediately "in another country". So we expect to see a big spike in searches for 'best VPN for porn' in the UK from July 15.

It’s just as well there aren’t tons of affordable, reliable VPN services for every conceivable kind of device. That would make a mockery of the whole thing.

Won’t somebody think of the grown-ups? 

I’m a parent, so this legislation is designed to reassure people like me: of course I don’t want my five-year-old seeing sexually explicit content. But this parent has been reporting on porn filtering since the days of USENET, so forgive me if I’m more cynical than the average madam.

Once this infrastructure is in place for porn, what’s next? What else will we have to petition the authorities to let us see, to have recorded in a database somewhere? Do we really think it’s a good idea to tie people’s photo ID in with their porn habits? Can we trust anyone not to abuse the data?

I think you should be wary of anything that comes from people yelling “think of the children!” All too often, that means they don’t want you to think at all.

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