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‘The Digital Economy Bill will not suddenly turn us into North Korea’

GUEST BLOG: The government’s attempt to introduce age-verification for accessing online porn is not an attack on freedom, argues Jonathan Rallings, assistant director for policy at Barnardo’s

The Digital Economy Bill, which is currently passing through parliament, looks like it may provide a step change in the battle to keep children safe online.  The proposed legislation promises to ensure that websites offering pornography will be required to introduce age verification procedures to ensure that those viewing adult material are indeed adults.  Furthermore, in response to concerns from children’s campaigners, Ministers have accepted that the Bill should contain powers to block pornographic sites (at least as a last resort) if they do not comply with this requirement.

At Barnardo’s, we feel this seems pretty straightforward as all it does is brings the internet in line with the clear restrictions around distributing pornography in the offline world.  After all, we don’t expect children in a newsagent to have to search through pornographic magazines to reach their comics – that’s why they’re placed on the top shelf. Similarly, licensed sex shops must follow regulations about who they can and can’t admit or serve, or they won’t retain their licence for long. 

Technology has progressed greatly, and there are tools now which can both verify age whilst safely protecting anonymity - and this offers great potential for protecting children.

‘Eight out of 10 young people felt it was too easy for young people to accidentally see pornography online’

This can’t come soon enough. Every day Barnardo’s sees the impact that unfettered access to hardcore pornography online at the most crucial age of sexual development is having on a whole generation of young people.  It’s not only professionals such as teachers, police officers and social workers voicing concerns about the increasing volume and severity of sexual behaviours displayed by children – as they did to our Parliamentary Inquiry into Harmful Sexual Behaviour earlier this year – it’s also young people themselves. 

In 2014 an IPPR survey reported that eight out of 10 young people felt it was too easy for young people to accidentally see pornography online, whilst vast numbers of young women, in particular, are concerned that they are expected to look (77%) or act (75%) in a certain way by boys because of what they have seen online. The new Bill is responding as much to their concerns as to ours.

But to listen to the alarmist opposing voices you could be mistaken in thinking that these measured proposals threaten the very foundations of free speech in the UK.

The basic argument of the libertarian lobby is that any attempts to censor the internet in any way represents the start of a slippery slope towards becoming North Korea. 

For instance Brian Paddick, the Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokesperson, describes the Digital Economy Bill as something we would expect from the Russian or Chinese governments, not our own’. 

This is not true and is seemingly wilfully conflating two very separate issues which needs clarification.

‘What pornography should be available is a very different argument to what age groups it should be available to’

The confusion has arisen because the Government has announced that the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) will be in charge of regulating the new age verification requirements.  This makes sense, given their long experience, but the assumption is that the BBFC will, naturally, make judgments over what sites are offering ‘legitimate’ pornography based on its existing criteria for offline classification of R18 videos. 

However, after more than a decade of unregulated broadband pornography, campaigners argue that many legal – but ‘unusual’ – sexual practices not currently permitted under this code may risk being inadvertently caught up in what ends up being blocked.

But what pornography should be available is a very different argument to what age groups it should be available to. The idea that adults wishing to use pornography in the offline world must in some way prove they are old enough is inarguable, so why should it be any different online?

There may well be a case for debating what sexual practices might be considered acceptable online or otherwise – this is not something Barnardo’s has any expertise or interest in.  But this is a matter to be taken up directly with the BBFC.  It should not in any way be allowed to jeopardise the other important measures in this Bill which will help protect children from easily coming across disturbing material while they are surfing the net.    

Further reading:

Protecting our children from online porn

Limiting children's access to online porn