Inside the messy collapse of the UK’s unworkable porn block

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When the porn block finally came crashing down, even the regulator tasked with enforcing it wasn’t given much warning. Such was life in the shambolic final days of the government’s beleaguered campaign to create a clean, family friendly internet.

Companies that had sunk hundreds of hours into developing tools to make the porn block a reality have spoken of feeling “betrayed”, with scant communication from ministers. Despite this, many had developed age-verification products that were ready to be introduced on the world’s biggest pornographic websites if and when the porn block was finally launched.

In the adult entertainment industry, the news of the porn block’s demise was met with a mix of confusion and derision. And so, after more than two years of preparations, many in the industry are left wondering: how did it all go so wrong, and, crucially, what happens next?

On paper, the porn block was a simple idea. Any websites made up of more than one third pornography – so not Reddit and Twitter, for example – would have to hide themselves behind an age-verification wall that locks out anyone under the age of 18. Think GDPR pop-ups, but much more intrusive and with the added requirement of having to prove you are over the age of 18.

The porn block was introduced through Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act (DEA), which was first introduced as a bill in 2016 and became law towards the end of 2017. When Serge Acker, CEO of online verification company, heard the news he was intrigued. At the time, his company was developing a system to help the music business grapple with online licensing and rights. When he looked into the proposals, Acker decided to pivot his company’s efforts towards creating an age verification tool for pornography. The “porn pass” was the result, more formally known as the PortesCard. The proof-of-age card was designed to be purchased in shops and off-licences – show some ID, pay for the pass, punch some numbers into a age-verification block on a pornographic website and voila.

During the two years since the DEA became law, Acker had three or four developers working on the age verification technology. “We’ve been ready to go live since June this year,” he says. (Before delays struck, the DEA was scheduled to start in July 2019. At the time, Sky News reported the delay was indefinite despite the government insisting otherwise).

The PortesCard wasn’t the only piece of tech developed specifically for the introduction of age checks on pornographic websites. Everything from facial recognition to blockchain technology was being tinkered with to create products that let people prove they’re 18 or older. Controversially, MindGeek, the owner of Pornhub, RedTube and YouPorn, also created its own age checking tool – AgeID. People within the adult industry have said the age checking tool could have increased MindGeek’s dominance in the sector. (The company now says it is “not surprised” the law was cancelled and it doesn’t have any plants to install AgeID on its websites unless the law requires it to).

Ben Keirle created his company, 1Account, because of the DEA. Both Keirle and Acker say they weren’t made aware the government was planning on cancelling the DEA until stories appeared in the media on October 16. Keirle calls the cancellation a “disappointment”, while Acker labels it a “betrayal”. “I find it astonishing that a law was passed and eventually they’ve turned around and said, ‘We’re not going to do that now,’” Keirle says.

“The announcement, despite what the minister said, was done without the involvement of any key stakeholder,” Acker says, adding that the BBFC – the regulator charged with enforcing it – also only found out “through the press”. (The BBFC declined to comment, pointing us towards a statement saying it was ready for the law to be enforced).

This breakdown in communication reflects the systemic issues that plagued the porn block. “Originally there was a lot of confusion because we thought DCMS would be responsible, then they had to name a regulator,” Acker says.

In its role as age verification regulator, the BBFC – which was only appointed to the role in February 2018, two months before the law was first planned to be introduced – had been handed significant powers from the government. If websites didn’t install age-checking systems the BBFC could ask advertising networks and payment providers, such as Visa and Mastercard, to pull their services. There was also the nuclear option of requiring internet service providers and mobile networks to completely block access to websites not following the rules. The BBFC planned to start checking in on pornography by looking at those with the most amount of visitors first, before working its way down a very long list.

As early as January 2017 porn companies were arguing with lawmakers about which websites should have to include age checks. One bone of contention was the amount of porn that’s available on social media, including Twitter and Reddit. The law said only commercial providers of porn were required to introduce age checks – but there was no clear definition of a commercial provider.

“My concern is that with Twitter, kids are going there; 13-year-olds can get a Twitter account and they allow hardcore imagery on their site without any checks whatsoever,” David Cooke, the director of digital and new media at MindGeek said in Westminster in 2017. Eventually, social media companies were considered ancillary service providers, which were ultimately considered separate from age checking but had their own set of guidelines. Then came the strange definition of what a pornographic website was – if a website was deemed to contain more than one-third pornography, it would fall under the age verification check. Any less, and it was open to anyone. How anyone should go about measuring what “one third pornography” looked like remained unclear. To add to the legal confusion, it wasn’t until March 2018 that the government outlined what an age verification checking tool would look like.

Despite the early legal complexities, companies working on new age verification technology were ready to go at the start of 2019. “We secured and signed deals with well over 60 per cent of the 150 most-visited adult websites in the UK. Our tests were going very well,” Keirle says.

Much like the age verification industry, pornographers say they weren’t warned about the imminent death of the porn block. But when the news broke, nobody was surprised. “I admire the work they [the government and BBFC] put into it, but every time they came up with a solution, there were problems,” says Alex Hawkins, vice president at xHamster, the thirty-third most popular website in the UK.

Multiple people within the porn industry say the government and the BBFC attempted to listen to their concerns about introducing age filters, but with the delays to the porn block in 2018 and 2019 there was a growing feeling that the changes would never happen. “There was something missing in terms of how this would be executed,” says Mike Stabile, a spokesperson for the Free Speech Coalition, the trade association for the adult industry in America. “As it went on I think that people really lost interest.”

All of the adult websites spoken to for this story say they were willing to introduce age checks as they didn’t want children accessing adult material; age verification companies also say websites were receptive to their discussions. And many people within the porn industry say they believe more needs to be done to stop children accessing adult material.

Bella French, the CEO and co-founder of the Canadian website ManyVids, says the UK is her website’s second-biggest audience and that the porn block could potentially have had a huge impact on the company’s revenue. “It takes a lot of resources, it’s not something easy to put in place and make sure it functions well,” French says. She also highlights one of the fundamental technical flaws with the porn block: anyone using a VPN could easily circumvent age checks by changing their location.

But while policymakers seemed wilfully deaf to questions about how effective the porn block might be, what might finally have killed it may have been concerns about data privacy. Independent UK porn producer Anna Richards, who founded the website FolicMe, says she was concerned about the age verification solutions that appeared. “Straight away [they] made me go, ‘Should we not be worried here?,’” Richards says. She adds that companies offering free age verification tools to website may have been doing so to help them collect user data. “None of them even at that point provided any form of open or transparent information relating to data protection.”

Privacy advocates at the Open Rights Group argued that the collection of such sensitive user data – essentially a vast database of who requested access to what poronographic websites and when – would be a goldmine for hackers. In response to criticism, the BBFC debuted a certification scheme for age verification tools but made their participation in this voluntary. “Attempting to regulate all internet content to ensure it is safe for children is, unfortunately, not an achievable aim,” the Open Rights Group said in a statement issued once the DEA had been cancelled. “Any steps taken will in truth be partial and come at costs.”

Keirle says it feels like the government has been swayed by negative publicity around privacy and security concerns. “That seems to be a driving force behind why they’re kicking it into the long grass,” he says. Both Acker and Keirle are now focussing on other areas of their business – each says their system would not have given porn companies access to user information. Acker’s card can be used for other online age verification, such as gambling, and Keirle’s 1Account has its own sign-on system and payment infrastructure.

Despite its failings, the DEA has made an impact – both in the UK and abroad. French says her website is now thinking about verification methods for users, which can help models on the site understand who they are talking to. “I think that we should have a way to educate younger viewers about the fact that the content that they see on ManyVids is made by professionals,” she says.

She predicts that the porn industry will face more regulation in the coming years. “Things are evolving very fast,” French says. “This is an industry that will be more and more regulated there’s absolutely no way this won’t happen at some point in time.” Since the UK proposed the porn block, Australian lawmakers have also discussed their own version.

And just as soon as it was killed, the porn block is lurching back to life. In her written statement cancelling the DEA, Morgan said the government wasn’t giving up on its plan to introduce age verification for pornographic websites. “The government’s commitment to protecting children online is unwavering,” she said. Whatever that means, it’s likely to form a part of the online harms white paper, which was released in April of this year. Morgan has said that age verification will, at some point, be added to any proposed laws.

But when it does so, there may be one big change for the porn block 2.0: In her statement, Morgan pointed out that the current version of the Digital Economy Act “does not cover social media platforms”. When the porn block comes back, Reddit and Twitter and likely to be major targets.

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