The Government has been very secretive about its progress towards the starting of internet censorship for porn in the UK. Meanwhile the appointed internet porn censor, the BBFC, has withdrawn into its shell to hide from the flak. It has uttered
hardly a helpful word on the subject in the last six months, just at a time when newspapers have been printing uniformed news items based on old guesstimates of when the scheme will start.
The last target date was specified months ago when DCMS minister Margot James suggested that it was intended to get the scheme going around Easter of 2019. This date was not achieved but the newspapers seem to have jumped to the conclusion that
the scheme would start on 1st April 2019. The only official response to this false news is that the DCMS will now be announcing the start date shortly.
So what has been going on?
Well it seems that maybe the government realised that asking porn websites and age verification services to demand that porn users identify themselves without any real legal protection on how that data can be used is perhaps not the wisest thing
to do. Jim Killock of Open Rights Group explains that the delays are due to serious concerns about privacy and data collection:
When they consulted about the shape of age verification last summer they were surprised to find that nearly everyone who wrote back to them in that consultation said this was a privacy disaster and they need to make sure people's data doesn't
get leaked out.
Because if it does it could be that people are outed, have their relationships break down, their careers could be damaged, even for looking at legal material.
The delays have been very much to do with the fact that privacy has been considered at the last minute and they're having to try to find some way to make these services a bit safer. It's introduced a policy to certify some of the products as
better for privacy (than others) but it's not compulsory and anybody who chooses one of those products might find they (the companies behind the sites) opt out of the privacy scheme at some point in the future.
And there are huge commercial pressures to do this because as we know with Facebook and Google user data is extremely valuable, it tells you lots about what somebody likes or dislikes or might want or not want.
So those commercial pressures will kick in and they'll try to start to monetise that data and all of that data if it leaked out would be very damaging to people so it should simply never be collected.
So the government has been working on a voluntary kite mark scheme to approve age verifiers that can demonstrate to an auditor they will keep user data safe. This scheme seems to be in its early stages as the audit policy was first outlines to
age verifiers on 13th March 2019. AvSecure reported on Twitter:
Friday saw several AV companies meet with the BBFC & the accreditation firm, who presented the framework & details of the proposed scheme.
Whilst the scheme itself seems very deep & comprehensive, there were several questions asked that we are all awaiting answers on.
The Register reports that AgeID has already commissioned a data security audit using the information security company, the NCC Group. Perhaps that company can therefore be rapidly approved by the official auditor, whose identity seems to being
So the implementation schedule must presumably be that the age verifiers get audited over the next couple of months and then after that the government can give websites the official 3 months notice required to give websites time to implement the
now accredited age verification schemes.
The commencement date will perhaps be about 5 or 6 months from now.
The BBFC has made a pretty poor show of setting out guidelines for the technical implementation of age verification, and now the Stop Age Verification campaign has pointed out that the BBFC has made legal errors about text porn
The BBFC seems a little behind the curve in its role as porn censor. Its initial draft of its guidelines gave absolutely no concern for the safety and well being of porn users. The BBFC spoke of incredibly sensitive identity and browsing date
being entrusted to adult websites and age verifiers, purely on the forlorn hope that these companies would follow 'best practice' voluntary guidelines to keep the data safe. The BBFC offered next to no guidelines that defined how age verification
should work and what it really needs to do.
As time has moved on, it has obviously occurred to the BBFC or the government that this was simply not good enough, so we are now waiting on the implementation of some sort of kite marking scheme to try to provide at least a modicum of trust in
age verifiers to keep this sensitive data safe.
But even in this period of rework, the BBFC hasn't been keeping interested parties informed of what's going on. The BBFC seem very reluctant to advise or inform anyone of anything. Perhaps the rework is being driven by the government and maybe
the BBFC isn't in a position to be any more helpful.
Anyway it is interesting to note that in an
article from stopageverification.org.uk , that the BBFC has been reported to being overstepping the remit of the age verification laws contained in the Digital Economy Act:
All types of pornographic content are within the scope of the legislation. The legislation does not exclude audio or text from its definition of pornography. All providers of commercial online pornography to persons in the UK are required to
comply with the age-verification requirement.
Pornographic material is defined in s.15 of the act. This sets out nine categories of material. Material is defined in that section (15(2) as material means204 (a) a series of visual images shown as a moving picture, with or without sound; (b)
a still image or series of still images, with or without sound; or (c) sound;
It clearly doesn't mention text.
The BBFC need to be clear in their role as Age Verifier. They can only apply the law as enacted by Parliament. If they seek to go beyond that they could be at risk of court action.
Despite the prevailing porn ban in Uganda, it can safely be said that pornographic materials and information has never been more consumed than now. The latest web rankings from Alexa show that Ugandans consume more pornographic materials and
information than news and government information, among other relevant materials.
The US website Porn555.com is ranked as the 6th most popular website in Uganda, ahead of Daily Monitor, Twitter, BBC among others.
The country's internet censors claim to have blocked 30 of the main porn websites so perhaps that is the reason for porn555 to be the most popular rather then the more obvious PornHub, YouPorn, xHamster etc.
Sky News has learned that the government has delayed setting a date for when age verification rules will come into force due to concerns regarding the security and human rights issues posed by the rules. A DCMS representative said:
This is a world-leading step forward to protect our children from adult content which is currently far too easy to access online.
The government, and the BBFC as the regulator, have taken the time to get this right and we will announce a commencement date shortly.
Previously the government indicated that age verification would start from about Easter but the law states that 3 months notice must be given for the start date. Official notice has yet to be published so the earliest it could start is already
The basic issue is that the Digital Economy Act underpinning age verification does not mandate that identity data and browsing provided of porn users should be protected by law. The law makers thought that GDPR would be sufficient for data
protection, but in fact it only requires that user consent is required for use of that data. All it requires is for users to tick the consent box, probably without reading the deliberately verbose or vague terms and conditions provided. After
getting the box ticked the age verifier can then do more or less what they want to do with the data.
Realising that this voluntary system is hardly ideal, and that the world's largest internet porn company Mindgeek is likely to become the monopoly gatekeeper of the scheme, the government has moved on to considering some sort of voluntary
kitemark scheme to try and convince porn users that an age verification company can be trusted with the data. The kitemark scheme would appoint an audit company to investigate the age verification implementations and to approve those that use
I would guess that this scheme is difficult to set up as it would be a major risk for audit companies to approve age verification systems based upon voluntary data protection rules. If an 'approved' company were later found to be selling,
misusing data or even getting hacked, then the auditor could be sued for negligent advice, whilst the age verification company could get off scot-free.
We met to discuss BBFC's voluntary age verification privacy scheme, but BBFC did not attend. Open Rights Group met a number of age verification providers to discuss the privacy standards that they will be meeting when the scheme
launches, slated for April. Up to 20 million UK adults are expected to sign up to these products.
We invited all the AV providers we know about, and most importantly, the BBFC, at the start of February. BBFC are about to launch a voluntary privacy standard which some of the providers will sign up to. Unfortunately, BBFC have not committed to
any public consultation about the scheme, relying instead on a commercial provider to draft the contents with providers, but without wider feedback from privacy experts and people who are concerned about users.
We held the offices close to the BBFC's offices in order that it would be convenient for them to send someone that might be able to discuss this with us. We have been asking for meetings with BBFC about the privacy issues in the new code since
October 2018: but have not received any reply or acknowledgement of our requests, until this morning, when BBFC said they would be unable to attend today's roundtable. This is very disappointing.
BBFC's failure to consult the public about this standard, or even to meet us to discuss our concerns, is alarming. We can understand that BBFC is cautious and does not wish to overstep its relationship with its new masters at DCMS. BBFC may be
worried about ORG's attitude towards the scheme: and we certainly are critical. However, it is not responsible for a regulator to fail to talk to its potential critics.
We are very clear about our objectives. We are acting to do our best to ensure the risk to adult users of age verification technologies are minimised. We do not pose a threat to the scheme as a whole: listening to us can only result in making the
pornographic age verification scheme more likely to succeed, and for instance, to avoid catastrophic failures.
Privacy concerns appear to have been recognised by BBFC and DCMS as a result of consultation responses from ORG supporters and others, which resulted in the voluntary privacy standard. These concerns have also been highlighted by Parliament,
whose regulatory committee expressed surprise that the Digital Economy Act 2017 had contained no provision to deal with the privacy implications of pornographic age verification.
Today's meeting was held to discuss:
What the scheme is likely to cover; and what it ideally should cover;
Whether there is any prospect of making the scheme compulsory;
What should be done about non-compliant services;
What the governance of the scheme should be in the long tern, for instance whether it might be suitable to become an ICO backed code, or complement such as code
As we communicated to BBFC in December 2018, we have considerable worries about the lack of consultation over the standard they are writing, which appears to be truncated in order to meet the artificial deadline of April this year. This is what
we explained to BBFC in our email:
Security requires as many perspectives to be considered as possible.
The best security standards eg PCI DSS are developed in the open and iterated
The standards will be best if those with most to lose are involved in the design.
For PCI DSS, the banks and their customers have more to lose than the processors
For Age Verification, site users have more to lose than the processors, however only the processors seem likely to be involved in setting the standard
We look forward to BBFC agreeing to meet us to discuss the outcome of the roundtable we held about their scheme, and to discuss our concerns about the new voluntary privacy standard. Meanwhile, we will produce a note from the meeting, which we
believe was useful. It covered the concerns above, and issues around timing, as well as strategies for getting government to adjust their view of the absence of compulsory standards, which many of the providers want. In this, BBFC are a critical
actor. ORG also intends as a result of the meeting to start to produce a note explaining what an effective privacy scheme would cover, in terms of scope, risks to mitigate, governance and enforcement for participants.
While most of the blocked sites are foreign, a few local websites and social media platforms have also been targeted by the government censorship. One of these websites, somewhereinblog.net, is the largest Bengali-language community blog platform
in the world.
The post and telecommunications minister blamed the site for spreading atheism in Bangladesh.
A group of 33 Bangladeshi university teachers, journalists, bloggers, and activists have demanded that the government lift the ban on the blog platform immediately.
According to a recent analysis, people in Hyderabad have taken an avid interest in viewing porn even though it has been banned. With the Union government banning 827 porn sites across the country, an increase of 75% has been seen in porn viewing
Hyderabad is among the many states which have seen an increase in porn viewership. On conducting a medical study, it was claimed that the increasing number of divorces can be attributed to psychological effects of porn addiction.
A survey published by DocOnline and conducted by city doctors, it was inferred that the obsession with pornography is effecting the sexual health of viewers. Dr Syed Abrar Kareem, a physician stated that porn gives rise to impractical sexual
expectations which when not met, result in psycho-somatic disorders. Out of the 5,000 people chosen for the survey, 3,500 were men and 1,500 were women confessed to watching porn regularly.
A rise of 31% has been recorded in divorces and break-ups. Allegedly, the doctors have also seen an increase in impotency cases being brought to them due to the extreme involvement in virtual sex.
Christian Concern writes a long article criticising the relaxation of UK obscenity law and concludes:
We need your help to monitor the mainstreaming of sado-masochism and extreme pornography in British society from now on. Christians have a unique calling to shed the light of the Gospel on this problem, and to provide a witness to redemption in
a society that has completely lost its way regarding sexual ethics.
The upcoming UK internet porn censorship regime being introduced later this year has set the UK authorities to thinking about a more rational set of laws governing what porn is legal and what porn is illegal in the UK. It makes a lot of sense to
get the UK stall straight before the commencement of the new censorship regime.
The most contradictory area of porn law is that often referred to as 'beyond R18 porn'. This includes material historically banned by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) claiming obscenity, ie fisting, golden showers, BDSM, female ejaculation,
and famously from a recent anti censorship campaign, face sitting/breath play. Such material is currently cut from R18s, as censored and approved by the BBFC.
When the age verification law first came before parliament, 'beyond R18' porn was set to be banned outright. However as some of these categories are commonplace in worldwide porn, then the BBFC would have had to block practically all the porn
websites in the world, leaving hardly any that stuck to R18 guidelines that would be acceptable for viewing after age verification. So the lawmakers dropped the prohibition, and this 'beyond R18' material will now be acceptable for viewing after
age verification. This leaves the rather clear contradiction that the likes of fisting and female ejaculation would be banned or cut by the BBFC for sale in UK sex shops, but would have to be allowed by the BBFC for viewing online.
This contradiction has now been squared by the government deciding that 'beyond R18' pornography is now legal for sale in the UK. So the BBFC will now have a unified set of rules, specified by the CPS, covering both the censorship of porn sales
in the UK and the blocking of foreign websites.
This legalisation of 'beyond R18' porn will surely disappoint a few censorial politicians in the House of Lords, notably Elspeth Howe. She has already tabled a private members bill to restore the ban on any foreign websites including 'beyond R18'
porn. Her bill has now been rendered mostly irrelevant.
However there is still one genre of pornography that is sticking out of line, and that is cartoon porn featuring under age characters. Such porn is widespread in anime but strictly banned under UK law. So given the large amounts of Japanese
Hentai porn on the most popular tube sites in the world, then those videos could still be an issue for the viability of the age classification regime and could still end up with all the major porn sites in the world banned.
The new CPS censorship rules
The new rules have already come into force, they started on 28th January 2019.
A CPS spokesperson confirmed the change saying
It is not for the CPS to decide what is considered good taste or objectionable. We do not propose to bring charges based on material that depicts consensual and legal activity between adults, where no serious harm is caused and the likely
audience is over the age of 18.
The CPS will, however, continue to robustly apply the law to anything which crosses the line into criminal conduct and serious harm.
It seems a little bit rich for the CPS to claim that It is not for the CPS to decide what is considered good taste or objectionable, when they have happily been doing exactly that for the last 30 years.
The CPS originally outlined the new rules in a public consultation that started in July 2018. The key proposals read:
When considering whether the content of an article is “obscene”, prosecutors
should distinguish between:
Content showing or realistically depicting criminal conduct (whether
non-consensual activity, or consensual activity where serious harm is
caused), which is likely to be obscene;
Content showing or realistically depicting other conduct which is lawful,
which is unlikely to be obscene.
Do consultees agree or disagree with the guidance that prosecutors must exercise real caution when dealing with the moral nature of acts not criminalized by law, and that the showing or realistic depiction of sexual
activity / pornography which does not constitute acts or conduct contrary to the criminal law is unlikely to be obscene?
The following conduct (notwithstanding previous guidance indicating otherwise) will not likely fall to be prosecuted under the Act:
Activity involving bodily substances (including urine, vomit, blood and faeces)
Infliction of pain / torture
Bondage / restraint
Placing objects into the urethra
Any other sexual activity not prohibited by law
It is consensual;
No serious harm is caused;
It is not otherwise inextricably linked with other criminality; and
The likely audience is not under 18 or otherwise vulnerable.
When considering whether the content of an article is "obscene", prosecutors should distinguish between:
Content relating to criminal conduct (whether non-consensual activity, or consensual activity where serious harm is caused, or otherwise inextricably linked to criminality), which is likely to be obscene;
Content relating to other non-criminal conduct, which is unlikely to be obscene, provided the audience is not young or otherwise vulnerable.
Conduct will not likely fall to be prosecuted under the Act provided that:
It is consensual (focusing on full and freely exercised consent, and also where the provision of consent is made clear where such consent may not be easily determined from the material itself); and
No serious harm is caused (whether physical or other, and applying the guidance above at paragraph 17); and
It is not otherwise inextricably linked with other criminality (so as to encourage emulation or fuelling interest or normalisation of criminality); and
The likely audience is not under 18 (having particular regard to where measures have been taken to ensure that the audience is not under 18) or otherwise vulnerable (as a result of their physical or mental health, the circumstances in which
they may come to view the material, the circumstances which may cause the subject matter to have a particular impact or resonance or any other relevant circumstance).
Note that extreme pornography is considered illegal so will likely be considered obscene too. But the CPS adds a few additional notes of harmful porn that will continue to be illegal:
Publications which show or depict the infliction of serious harm may be considered to be obscene publications because they show criminal assault notwithstanding the consent of the victim. This includes dismemberment and graphic mutilation. It
includes asphyxiation causing unconsciousness, which is more than transient and trifling, and given its danger is serious.
So it seems that breath play will be allowed as long as it doesn't lead to unconsciousness. Another specific rule is that gags do not in themselves imply a lack of consent:
Non-consent for adults must be distinguished from consent to relinquish control. The presence of a gag or other forms of bondage does not, without more, suffice to confirm that sexual activity was non-consensual.
The BBFC changes its R18 rules
The BBFC has several roles, it works in an advisory role when classifying cinema films, it works as an independent and mandatory censor when classifying mainstream videos, but it works directly under government rules when censoring pornographic
films. And in this last role, it uses unpublished guidelines based on rules provided by the CPS.
The BBFC has informed BBC News that it will indeed use the updated CPS guidelines when censoring porn. The BBC explains:
The BBFC's guidelines forbid material judged to be obscene under the current interpretation of the Obscene Publications Act.
A spokeswoman told the BBC: Because the Obscene Publications Act does not define what types of material are likely to be considered obscene, we rely upon guidance from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) as to what classes of material they
consider likely to be suitable for prosecution.
We are aware that the CPS have updated their guidance on Obscene Publications today and we have now adjusted our own internal policies to reflect that revised guidance.
Myles Jackman And Pandora Blake
And a thank you to two of the leading campaigners calling for the CPS to lighten up on its censorship rules.
Obscenity lawyer Myles Jackman, who has campaigned for these changes for a number of years, told Yahoo News UK that the change had wider implications for the law. He said:
"It is a very impressive that they've introduced the idea of full and freely exercised consent in the law.
"Even for people with no interest in pornography this is very important for consent and bodily autonomy."
Activist and queer porn filmmaker Pandora Blake, who also campaigned to have the ban on the depiction of certain sex acts overturned, called the news a 'welcome improvement'. They said:
"This is a happy day for queer, feminist and fetish porn."
Acts that were banned that can now be depicted include:
InternetMatters.org is group funded by UK internet and telecoms companies with the aim of promoting their role in internet safety.
The group has now published a survey supporting the government's upcoming introduction of age verification requirements for porn websites. The results reveal:
83% feel that commercial porn sites should demand users verify their age before they're able to access content.
76% of UK parents feel there should be greater restrictions online to stop kids seeing adult content.
69% of parents of children aged four to 16 say they're confident the government's new ID restrictions will make a difference.
However 17% disagreed with commercial porn sites requiring ID from their users. And the use of data was the biggest obstacle for those parents opposed to the plans. Of those parents who are anti-age verification, 30% said they wouldn't trust
age-verification companies with their personal data.
While 18% of parents claim they expect kids would find a way to get around age-verification and a further 13% claim they're unsure that it would actually reduce the number of children accessing pornography. Age-verification supported by experts
The India ISP Jio has upped the ante in internet porn censorship as it has decided to block the websites of VPN providers.
Following a court decision in India requiring that the country ban access to online porn, reports began to emerge in October that internet access providers had begun blocking as many as 827 adult sites.
But now the Indian telecom firm may be going a step further, thwarting attempts by users in its 250-million strong subscriber base to find workarounds to the ban using Virtual Private Network (VPN) software.
Jio appears to have blocked access to proxy sites where the VPN software can be downloaded, according to the report.
There are now signs that Reliance Jio may be suffering blowback from its enthusiastic support of the porn ban, seeing an overall drop in traffic by its users for the final quarter of 2018, with the average Jio customer dropping data use from an
average of 11 gigabytes per month to 10.8 gigs, according to a report by The Hindu newspaper.
Asked whether the drop in data use by its customers was a result of the ban on porn sites, Jio official Anshuman Thakur replied, Yes, you could say that.
Jio's new subscriber signups also dropped in the last three months of 2018, to 27.8 million new subscribers during that period, when the porn ban took effect, from 37 million in the previous quarter.