ResistAV

Campaign Timeline: read about the age verification story so far

Chapter 1: DCMS consultation

In Feb 2016 the Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) published a consultation that proposed new age verification legislation. Our campaign was born out of the need to offer thoughtful expert response to the Government’s proposals. Although the consultation drew much critique from activists and experts, after the consultation ended in April 2016, DCMS forged ahead with their plan regardless.

  • During this period Pandora/Blake spearheaded a campaign encouraging others to respond to the consultation, and put together a resource to help them do so:

How to respond to AV consultation

  • Blake’s own consultation response, in 6 parts, is an in-depth analysis of the many flaws of the original AV regulations. Unfortunately, many of the flaws persist in the legislation as it stands today.

1 Evidence of Harm;  2 Sex education 3 Privacy, surveillance and freedom of speech 4 Credit cards, classism and social exclusion 5 Problems with the existing classification system 6 Age verification: Piracy, monopoly and industry standards

  • Those interested in an in-depth look into the history of the issue may find it useful to consult the original consultation document, and other contemporaneous materials:

Official consultation site

Chapter 2: House of Commons

Age verification rules were integrated into the Digital Economy Bill, which started making its way through Parliament. Our efforts took on two main directions: to engage with legislators directly on the one hand – and to draw a great deal of public attention on the other. In October 2016 Pandora/Blake and Myles Jackman organised the Backlash Kink Olympixxx, a protest in Parliament square that showed up the absurdity of outdated obscenity rules enshrined in the DE Bill at the time. 

  • In a detailed, long-form blog post Blake briefs the community on the state of the bill after it had had its first reading. They give a brief account of their meetings with various civil servants and summarise some of the more alarming features of the bills. One alarming implication: the bill, extremely vague on practical details of how its effects would be brought about, would nonetheless “impose UK law on international individuals and companies if their websites are accessible to UK viewers”

Age Verification: the Digital Economy Bill and and what it means

  • A Guardian article by Blake underscores a crucial feature of smaller adult sites: these are often community hubs for people with alternative sexualities, and as such have very little in common with corporatised mainstream porn. At the time this article was published, DE Bill relied on outdated definitions of obscene material; Blake gives a point-by-point analysis of why using these definitions was inappropriate and harmful.

Restricting niche porn sites is bad news for people with marginalised sexualities

  • Myles Jackman and Pandora/Blake submitted joint written evidence to the Public Bill Committee on the Digital Economy Bill. They argued that the age verification policy was not based on evidence, lacked safeguards for personal privacy, would disproportionately impact small businesses, and contained simplistic, vague definitions of pornography. For these reasons, AV policy was “unnecessary, disproportionate, unworkable, and unintentionally risk[ed] causing harm rather than good”.

Written evidence submission to the public bill committee on the DE Bill

  •  Myles wrote about the deficiencies of the DE Bill with regards to privacy protections, pointing out the contrast between the enormity of potential harm to individuals in the event of a data breach – and the toothlessness of the age verification regulator, given very little power in the bill to enforce much needed privacy protections. This article was an excerpt from the briefing submitted on behalf of Open Rights Group.

Age verification for online pornography and privacy

  • Security expert Alec Muffet set out a detailed critique of existing technological approaches to age verification – solutions such as logging into porn sites with your Facebook account, uploading a selfie along with a photo ID, or typing in a credit card number. All of these suggestions present privacy risks that may not be fully understood by people who are not tech-savvy.

Alec Muffet, “A sequence of spankingly bad ideas.” – Medium, 6 October 2016

  • Jim Killock, the Executive Director of UK digital rights campaign organisation Open Rights Group, gave oral evidence to the Public Bill Committee about issues with DE Bill, including concerns regarding AV.

Hansard transcript || Parliament.tv segment 

  • “[T]he government announced that non-compliant sites won’t just be fined, as was proposed in early drafts of the Bill, but blocked outright. Obscenity lawyer Myles Jackman, who has been campaigning hard against the Digital Economy Bill, explained that the government will effectively be “turning off” sites which contain perfectly legal material.”

Girl on the Net, What the New British Porn Bill Means for You“- Vice, 23 November 2016

  • “One company … estimated that 25 million people in Britain would register for the AV network within the first month. [Security expert] Muffett suggests it is a bad idea to habituate so many people into bad security patterns like ‘normalising the exchange of social media data for porn access, typing your phone number into random websites [and] typing your credit card numbers into random websites.'”

John Lubbock, “Insecure, ineffective and dangerous: The reality of the UK’s new porn bill“- Politics.co.uk, 24 November 2016

Chapter 3: House of Lords

As the bill made its way through the House of Lords, the legislators added some important amendments. Most notably, they removed a reference to outdated obscenity rules. We had lobbied for this outcome, and were pleased to see phrases from our briefing turn up in debate transcripts. However, ultimately age verification was voted into law without adequate privacy protections.

  • Backlash submitted a briefing to the House of Lords, written by Blake. This was targeted at Lords based on their participation on relevant committees, as well as at those Lords who, because of their political position, might be inclined to be sympathetic to issues of privacy and civil liberties.

House of Lords briefing on the Digital Economy Bill

  • After the DE Bill passed into law, Blake analysed the final shape of the age verification rules, discussed the amendments that had passed – and those that, unfortunately, had not – and laid out the bureaucratic stages the new act it would have to go through before it came into force.

The final shape of the Digital Economy Bill

  • Open Rights Group produced two briefings on DE Bill for House of Lords. As an organisation that campaigns for digital rights more generally, they cover a wider scope in their briefings than our specific focus on age verification rules. That said, they do not shy away from addressing matters surrounding adult content.

ORG briefing to the Lords at the committee stage || Briefing before the second stage 

  • “The House of Lords … debated various aspects of age verification at length, however issues of appeal processes for website blocking by Internet service providers and privacy safeguards for data collected for the age-verification purposes will have to be resolved at a later stage. In our view, if the Government is not prepared to make changes to the Bill to safeguard privacy, the opposition parties should be ready to force the issue to a vote.” 

Slavka Bielikova, “Government says privacy safeguards are not “necessary” in Digital Economy Bills” – Open Rights Group, 7 February 2017

  • “Britain’s top obscenity lawyer says the government crackdown on online pornography could be the beginning of a major attack on the public’s privacy on the web.”

Olivia Blair, “Digital Economy Bill: What could happen after the government crackdown on online pornography.” – Independent, 20 April 2017

As civil servants worked to set up the necessary bureaucratic machinery for enforcing AV rules, our campaign efforts were directed at making sure user privacy did not remain an afterthought. Not surprisingly, the practicalities of building a working internet censorship machine turned out to be incredibly complicated. When none of the guidelines for compliance had been worked out by March 2018, the date for enforcement of age verification was quietly postponed.

Pandora/Blake and Myles Jackman gave a talk at OrgCon about age verification. It is an excellent 20-minute distillation of the issues with AV.

The talk covers the shakiness of evidence that AV is needed in the first place, as well as the difficulties with implementing an effective technical solution. A large portion of the talk is dedicated to discussing the varied and profound privacy threats baked into nacent AV technologies.

  • BBC Radio 4 held a nuanced debate on AV issues. Blake (who did not participate, but was cited by the presenter Eddie Mair) wrote an account of the segment. The Digital Minister Matt Hancock appeared ill-prepared to discuss how AV would work in practice, especially regarding protections of sensitive identifying information. On the other hand, the writer Amelia Tait spoke eloquently about the flaws of the bill, highlighting the risks of creating a “digital footprint” of individuals’ sexual preferences.

Age verification critiqued on Radio 4

  • DE Act created a commercial market for age-checking software, which it makes no effort to regulate. Blake wrote an article ringing alarm bells about a move by Mindgeek, world’s biggest porn company, to develop an age verification solutions that smaller sites would be effectively forced to use. This prospect is alarming for many reasons, but chief among them is that Mindgeek has a long history of data breaches.

Do you trust PornHub with a database of your sexual preferences?

  • Blake had put a lot of effort into getting a meeting with DCMS representatives, and was eventually able to present them with a list of questions regarding practicalities of AV. On the basis of the meeting, it became clear that the department was washing their hands of the responsibility for secure age verification. Instead, they were relying on solution providers, site owners, and the regulator to put something adequate in place, with no clear view of how this may be accomplished.

DCMS pass the buck on age verification

  • “According to [Myles] Jackman, [one] company is trying to become the ‘Facebook of porn,’ using personal and backend data from age verification to sell targeted ads or sell your details to other porn companies.”

Gianluca Mezzofiore, “How Britain is trying to control the porn you watch” – Mashable, 28 April 2017

  • “Mindgeek may be the most powerful company that you’ve never heard of, or at least, a company you’ll claim never to have heard about in polite society. It’s the conglomerate that owns some of the world’s most visited porn sites. … [I]t may soon have a powerful political role in the UK that will ensure its dominance for decades to come. That’s because, within the next year, Mindgeek may become the principal gatekeeper between the country’s internet users and their porn.”

Daniel Cooper, “Pornhub owner may become the UK’s gatekeeper of online porn” – Engadget, 23 November 2017

  • “The British Board of Film Classification will be responsible for regulating age checks for UK users of online porn websites, if the government gets its way. … But campaigners have questioned the choice, saying that it hands over too much control to the BBFC, making it a de facto censor of online porn websites – as it can block sites that don’t comply by telling UK ISPs to restrict access to them.”

Rebecca Hill, “Brit film board proposed as overlord of online pr0nz age checks” – The Register, 15 December 2017

Chapter 5: BBFC, the new regulator, holds a consultation

BBFC, the censorship / media classification body, was chosen for the role of age verification regulator in early 2018. The regulator must produce two sets of guidance: what kind of web services would be considered providers of pornographic materials, and what age verification arrangements would be considered compliant. BBFC held a public consultation on the draft guidance. We worked to make sure that responses to the consultation expressed the pressing need for robust privacy protections.

  • Blake coordinated the community response to the consultation, by providing an outline of the issues that might guide potential responses

Tell the BBFC age verification will do more harm than good

  • Backlash response demonstrated that the draft guidelines were inadequate to the tasks of ensuring individuals’ privacy, underscored the enormity of risks in the event of a “Ashley Madison”-style hack, and called for the BBFC to take seriously the responsibility for the prevention of such harms. 

Backlash response to the consultation

  • In their joint response, Blake and Myles address point by point the many inadequacies of the BBFC approach, as expressed in the draft guidance. They call for additional measures that would ensure proportionality, transparency, clarity of scope, as well as comprehensive, enforceable security provisions. 

A joint response by Pandora/Blake and Myles Jackman (pdf)

Official BBFC consultation site

Draft BBFC guidelines on AV arrangements (pdf)

Summary of draft BBFC guidelines by Stop Age Verification campaign

Responses to the consultation from around the Web:

Open Rights Group (pdf) || Alec Muffet || Rosie Hodsdon || Hywel Phillips (pdf)

 

  • “Jim Killock, executive director of the privacy group Open Rights Group said: ‘The BBFC will struggle to ensure that Age Verification is safe, secure and anonymous. They are powerless to ensure people’s privacy.'”

Jeff Parsons, “Some porn sites will now require your name and address before you can use them” – The Mirror, 2 February 2018

  • “You’re soon going to have to prove you’re 18 or over if you want to watch porn online. It could mean handing over your email address or even credit card details to verify your age. This is because the government is going to make it a legal requirement for all porn sites to introduce age-verification software. It claims the change in the law is to protect children. But there’s confusion as to how it’ll be enforced, fears it could threaten users’ privacy and doubts as to whether it’ll even work.”

Nicholas Rotherham, “All you need to know about the UK’s porn block for under 18s” – BBC Newsbeat, 27 April 2018

  • “Respondents to the consultation make it clear that they don’t believe the plan is based on robust evidence, and that age verification is not a proportionate response: effectively, they see it as akin to using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.”

Rebecca Hill, “UK age-checking smut overlord won’t be able to handle the pressure – critics”,  The Register, 8 May 2018

Chapter 6: Parliament vote, and whatever comes after

As of early September 2018, there is still a number of events that have to occur before age verification can be enforced. BBFC have submitted their revised guidance documents to the Secretary of State for approval; after this, the Parliament has to vote on the final shape of the guidance. We don’t know when these things will happen. In the meantime, the DE Act is still a bad law with many outstanding issues, especially with regards to privacy, so we continue to campaign against it

The DE Act included “audio alone” into the definition of “online pornography” for the first time, raising concerns for accessibility of erotic text (otherwise not regulated by the DE Act) to visually impaired readers. Blake wrote to  BBFC asking for clarity regarding classification of audio materials, as none of the current obscenity regulations or classifications guidelines address the audio medium at all.

Blake’s email to BBFC