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The UK Is Blocking Online Porn To Under 18s. Could It Happen Here?

From April 2019, all internet access to pornography in the UK will be blocked unless users can confirm they are over the age of 18.

The Digital Economy Act, which was passed in 2017 but is only coming into effect this year, is aimed at reducing underage access to sexually explicit material on the internet. The Act also contains many provisions designed to tackle internet piracy.

How Will It Work?

The law will require sexually explicit websites to have an age restriction gateway for anyone accessing from a UK IP address. The gateway will require proof that users are over the age of 18 before being granted access.

Proof of age will be able to be confirmed by supplying a valid driver’s license or by providing information found on an ‘age verification card’ which can be bought at local stores.

There are also a number of third-party age verification programs, which may provide greater protection to users. One program, ‘AgeID’ has been developed by MindGeek, the operator of one of the largest pornography websites PornHub.

Non-compliant websites will be filtered out by UK Internet Service Providers and local website owners could be fined up to £250,000 for failing to provide an age-restriction gateway.

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It’s unclear whether the law will also apply to social media websites which commonly share sexually explicit material such as Twitter, as the law requires sites where more than a third of content is sexually explicit to comply. Early indications are that these websites will not be affected.

What Are the Arguments For and Against the Block?

Supporters of the block have raised concerns surrounding the developmental impact of early exposure to pornography. Academics such as Dr Gail Dines have claimed that porn is a ‘public health issue’ and that restrictions on access are required to prevent sexual violence, addiction and unhealthy relationships.

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The Conservative Party put forward the law to fulfil its 2015 Manifesto promise to “stop children’s exposure to harmful sexualised content online”.

Critics of the move include porn producers, civil liberties groups and digital rights organisations. The non-profit digital rights organisation, Open Rights Group, has stated that the block will be ineffective and raises serious privacy and security concerns.

Many groups have noted that the need to provide age-verifying information poses a risk that age-verification programs will be hacked and information leaked. Moreover, many have noted that tech-savvy young people will use VPNs to subvert blockers.

There have also been concerns raised by LGBT and niche porn producers that their businesses are unfairly impacted.

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UK gay pornography website Dirty Boyz has recently closed, citing the impending age verification requirements. The site’s operator released a statement stating that the block would ‘force online readers of Dirtyboyz to publicly declare themselves’ and ‘It could cause issues in relationships… could see children outed to their parents [and] could mean people are subjected to scams and blackmail if that data falls into criminal hands’.

Could Something Similar Be Implemented Here?

Technically, under current Australian Broadcasting and Classification Laws,  sexually explicit websites cannot be hosted locally. However, Communications Minister Mitch Fifield has indicated that current laws are currently under review.

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Australian-based advocacy organisation eChildhood (formerly ‘Porn Harms Kids’) is advocating for Internet Service Provider level blocks as well as age verification measures similar to the UK.

Could online age verification be brought to Australia? (Image: Getty)

Attempts to filter out explicit content from the internet have been proposed in the past -- in 2012 the ALP was forced to drop a proposed mandatory internet filter plan of content which was ‘refused classification’ in Australia -- including much adult content.

It’s likely that Australian politicians will be monitoring the UK block closely to decide whether to implement a similar proposal at home.