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Matt Hancock, the Minister of State for Digital, has signed the commencement order for the Digital Economy Act, which received Royal Assent in April 2017, meaning the law should come into effect April 2018. The Digital Economy Act outlines new regulations regarding access by under 18s on a website or platform that provides pornography on a ‘commercial basis’. It would implement an age-check requirement, through either your driver’s license, mobile number or credit card details, and could result in fines for websites that don’t comply, as well as internet providers blocking these sites within the U.K., affecting both nationwide and worldwide adult content makers. Furthermore, it would mean that the government and website owners would keep a database of all website users and their browsing history. This data could, therefore, be used in marketing techniques and caches, but also in the potential risk of a hacking where these sites are often untrusted and unregulated. Many have argued that this bill hasn’t been thought through and that it has to come under revision if the government are really going forward with it.

In fact, plenty of people believe that the Digital Economy Act will do more harm than good. Dr Victoria Nash, from the Oxford Internet Institute, believes that this isn’t an effective way to police underage access to porn, saying “It may make it harder for children to stumble across pornography, but nothing will stop determined teenagers” due to the fact the ID checks won’t be used on social media sites such as Twitter and Tumblr, who often host hardcore material. Furthermore, the Open Rights Group, a digital campaigning organisation which works to protect the privacy and right to free speech online, has publically argued against the Digital Economy Act. Executive Director Jim Killock said in his statement yesterday “Age verification could lead to porn companies building databases of the UK’s porn habits, which could be vulnerable to Ashley Madison style hacks.” This obviously refers to the Ashley Madison data breach of July 2015, which saw 25 gigabytes of company data, including user info such as names, addresses and credit card transactions, being leaked by hackers The Impact Team. These hacks into U.K. porn habits could not only be embarrassing and affect possible employment and public image, but may also out people based on the porn that they view. Without confidentiality confirmed by the government, how can we be sure that these situations will not arise?

 (Credit: Loz Pycock at Flickr)

Activist and sex worker Pandora Blake made a video outlining the effects that the ID checks will have on the sex industry, as well as the possible repercussions for workers like herself. As she states in the video, “(the bill) includes any content of people having sex, nudity or fetish content, which is published with the ‘intent to arouse’.” She highlights the flaw that a lot of content that falls under this blanket term would be free for viewing on TV or cinema, like Fifty Shades of Grey or Game of Thrones for example. It allows more mainstream and profitable creators to continue producing such content, whilst stigmatising and shaming U.K. sex workers for doing the same. Furthermore, it ignores independent porn that falls into feminist, LGBTQ+ and body-positive categories, which caters to audiences outside of the homogeneous and heteronormative pornography we see on mainstream sites. Whilst the government are introducing this bill to supposedly protect youth from harmful content, they’re brandishing all porn as evil, even if it has good intentions. Pandora also makes the example that even if your website has 1000 viewers a day, and you pay 10p per age check, assuming you have a cheap age checking method, which totals to £100 a day and £3000 a month. This money comes out of the website host’s pocket, not the customers, and means that niche site owners may have to shut down their platforms. You can check out Pandora’s interesting and educational perspective below.

Another key point from Jim Killock’s statement is how “age verification risks failure as it attempts to fix a social problem with technology.”

Another key point from Jim Killock’s statement is how “age verification risks failure as it attempts to fix a social problem with technology.”

It seems as if pornography is often held responsible for many failures within both socialisation and education.

The idea that getting rid of porn from young people will suddenly reduce things like teen pregnancy, misogyny and coercion is completely unrealistic. Natsal, the British National Surveys of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles published a document in 2015 on the patterns and trends found between sex and young people, which states “Pornography is a source of information for nearly one in four men as they grow up. Concerns from young people, particularly young women, about the negative effect pornography has on the way young people are supposed to look and behave highlights the importance of positive S.R.E. (Sex and Relationship Education).” This document shows how young people often rely on porn as a form of education, which may not be beneficial but highlights a failing within our schools. Sex education is mandatory in local authority-maintained schools, but not academies or free-schools which make up 65% of secondaries in the U.K. Even in the 35% of schools that do get this education, teenagers have said that it’s insufficient. In another Natsal document from 2016, teenagers reported their S.R.E. was out of touch with their lives, ignoring increased pressures and dangers faced by young people today. They lacked confidentiality and found S.R.E. to be gendered (such as teaching girls about menstruation and boys about condoms) and heterosexist. Taking away porn from young people, whilst ignoring the limited S.R.E. within secondary schools means that our teenagers will have nowhere to turn to. This will probably lead to an influx in teen pregnancy and unsafe sex, as well as unhealthy relationships. The U.K. has continuously made sex a taboo subject, and this harms our youth.

We need to stop demonising sexuality and start treating our teenagers properly. They deserve adequate sex education that allows positive and open conversations about sex, which allows healthier relationships in the future. Sex workers deserve platforms to share their content free from commercialisation and the increased costs this bill would bring. Furthermore, the people of the U.K. deserve privacy and freedom within their own homes to view NSFW content without worrying about possible consequences. Sex isn’t a problem, but our response to it is.

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Grace Middleton
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Grace is 19, a feminist, dog-lover, student, reader and constant overthinker with a love for writing and social politics. You can contact her at grace.emma.m@gmail.com.

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