Online porn and the government’s plans for protecting children
By Eleanor Levy
The UK government has published Child Safety Online: Age Verification for Pornography, a consultation on ways to bring the availability of pornography on the web in line with how it’s accessed in the physical world.
In other words, it’s looking at how best to implement age restrictions so that, just as children can’t go into a newsagent and grab a copy of Fiesta off the top shelf and take it home, so young people won’t be able to look at porn on their laptop, phone or tablet.
It’s a complicated subject, not least because online porn doesn’t have the same boundaries as offline porn. Content can’t be confiscated at customs by a sharp-eyed officer who spots a dodgy mag cleverly concealed inside a consignment of toilet rolls.
However much you clamp down on UK-generated content, there are huge difficulties in controlling internet porn created outside our borders. Even within our near neighbours in the EU, there are differing views on the effect on children who have been exposed to porn at a young age.
As the ATVOD’s 2014 report, For Adults Only? Underage access to online porn, states, ‘Some Member States do not consider that hardcore porn “might seriously impair” under 18s, so do not impose restrictions similar to those deployed by ATVOD in the UK. This means that online services based in, for example, The Netherlands, can and do target the UK and provide unrestricted access to hardcore pornography.’
Then there are the difficulties in defining porn itself – and distinguishing degrees. What is or isn’t hardcore, for example?
The consultation is trying to address all of this. It's an ambitious objective – but by no means an easy one.
‘200,000 UK children aged 6-15 visited an adult website from a PC or laptop in December 2013. This represents 1 in 16 children in that age group who went online that month.’ 
Even those of us who instinctively baulk at the idea of censorship of any content, whether online or off, should support the Government’s plans to make access to pornography more difficult for under-18s.
Indeed, if we are to try to preserve the freedom of people to create what they want, however unpalatable it may be, it’s essential that there are safety procedures in place to protect the young and the vulnerable – either from seeking it out through youthful curiosity, or stumbling across it by accident.
The consultation says:
‘Offline, there are clear expectations that children will be protected from seeing pornographic material – sexually explicit magazines are put on the top shelf, and pornographic videos can only be sold to over-18s. It goes against these accepted values that children are able to see free-to-access “tube” sites online, displaying very explicit, High Definition videos that are auto-played on landing pages.
‘Pornography has never been more easily accessible online, and material that would previously have been considered extreme has become part of mainstream online pornography. When young people access this material it risks normalising behaviour that might be harmful to their future emotional and psychological development.’
While not everyone is agreed that a causal link has ever been fully established between accessing porn and how children grow up to view sex (a fact acknowledged in the consultation, which states: ‘most evidence points to correlation between pornography and harms rather than causation’), it is difficult to argue against the basic premise that children should not be exposed to sexually explicit material before they are mature enough to understand or deal with it. Nor that we do our children a disservice to expose them to content that normalises behaviours that have been artificially constructed for the benefit of the porn makers – and their bank balances.
The practice of women removing all pubic hair, for example, has become common in porn as it allows the viewer to get a better look at what's going on. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that both boys and girls are now growing up assuming it's unnatural for women to have any hair ‘down there’ at all, meaning a generation of young women becoming slaves to the waxer/depilator/razor, with all the pain, expense and possibility of infection that entails. Men in porn often remove their hair too, so this doesn't just affect girls.
There is also some evidence that young people exposed to extreme porn at an early age are more likely to become sexually violent.
A study conducted by Internet Solutions for Kids and funded by the Centers for Amercian Disease Control and Prevention found that among the 10-17-year-olds surveyed, those who viewed violent x-rated material were six times more likely to report that they had forced someone to do something sexually online or in person than someone who hadn't.
The government's approach
The consultation proposes that the focus should be on commercial pornography providers introducing robust age verification procedures to prevent children accessing their content, enforceable by a new law. It states:
‘We expect those profiting from the growth of online pornography to see the protection of children as a core responsibility of doing business. We look to these businesses, for whom the UK is an important and lucrative market, to work with us and to ensure children are not exposed to harmful content online, or content that is not suitable for their age group.’
The document proposes options for enforcing this, including both civil and criminal sanctions.
It also cites Germany as having procedures worth learning from. There, all pornographic contents must have access controls. The age verification procedures already used for gambling sites are also mentioned and seem as good a starting point as any to explore this area further.
The consultation goes on to say: ‘It is important to note that we do not intend or wish to prevent adults from accessing legal content, and we are clear that this is neither about censuring legal activities, nor censoring the internet. However, this must not get in the way of our duty of care to our young people.’
While one part of the proposals sounds warning bells (the proposed strategy of concentrating efforts on the biggest and most successful porn providers, which could leave the smaller, and possibly more extreme, providers free to continue), it's an interesting and positive document and should be supported.
There has been criticism that the proposals do nothing to control porn produced overseas and this seems fair. But can we really afford to sit around and do nothing while someone, somewhere finds a solution to that problem? Surely it's better to do what you can now, and adapt and improve as and when you can.
It will be interesting to see how things progress once the consultation is over, and the hard work of implementation begins.
Read the full consultation document here.
You can find a link to fill in the consultation and other relevant documents here.
 For Adults Only? Underage access to online porn: A research report by the Authority for Television On Demand (ATVOD). Published: 28th March 2014
Image: Michael Carian CC BY-SA 2.0