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Could Cameron’s porn blockade really work?

Barry Collins
31 Jul 2015
Cameron war on porn
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The Prime Minister wants porn site visitors to prove their age. Experts says it will never work

Tough on porn, tough on the causes of porn. That’s the message coming from Downing Street, where David Cameron is once again threatening to outlaw pornography sites that fail to apply robust age verification.

“I want to see age restrictions put into place or these websites will face being shut down,” the Prime Minister declared this week, announcing a consultation on the matter this autumn. Whilst the prospect of pornographers arriving in Downing Street for a chat with David Cameron is an amusing one, the problems facing the Prime Minister’s porn blockade are much more serious. How can you effectively verify the age of porn site visitors without compromising their privacy or security? And what can Cameron actually do about the vast majority of porn sites that are hosted overseas, beyond the UK’s jurisdiction?

Failure of the filters

In some ways, Cameron’s crusade against the porn sites is an admission that the government’s previous attempts to prevent children accessing adult content have failed. Two years ago, the Conservative-led coalition effectively blackmailed Britain’s major ISPs into offering network-level parental control filters to their customers, threatening to legislate if they didn’t do so.

At the time, Cameron presented this as a panacea, an instant solution to the problem of children accessing pornography and other harmful content. “All the ISPs have rewired their technology so that once your filters are installed they will cover any device connected to your home internet account; no more hassle of downloading filters for every device, just one click protection,” Cameron said in a speech announcing the deal in 2013. “One click to protect your whole home and to keep your children safe.”

Now 90% of Britain’s broadband lines are covered by the filters on offer from the major ISPs, with some providers – such as Sky – now switching them on automatically unless the customer actively opts out. But it seems, for whatever reason, that parents simply don’t want them. An Ofcom report from January this year found precisely half of parents were aware of the network-level filters, but only 21% use them.

That should come as no surprise to the Prime Minister. The government’s own 2012 consultation on parental controls found that: “There was no great appetite among parents for the introduction of default filtering of the internet by their ISP: only 35% of the parents who responded favoured that approach.”

Nanny state knows best

Still, Cameron wants to go even further. The Prime Minister says he wants to “curb access to harmful pornographic content which is currently far too widely available,” and has put forward suggestions for how this might be achieved, including primary legislation that makes it an offence to publish pornography without age verification controls. And we’re not just talking about easily circumvented drop-down menus asking for your date of birth, but “proposals to block content through payment providers and other means”.

Forcing adults to hand over credit card or other payment details to access legal pornography could cause more problems than it solves, according to security experts. “My worry would be that we would start seeing a spate of phishing sites being created, using the lure of pornographic content,” David Emm, principal security researcher at Kaspersky Labs, told Expert Reviews. He said the sites would be able to steal valuable data “under the guise that we need your credit card details to verify you.”

Emm is also worried that legitimate (for want of a better word) porn sites would become a target for hackers, who would “install malware on a site to steal personal information”. As the recent breach of Ashley Madison – a matchmaking website for people seeking extra-marital affairs – proved, a huge database of people with something to hide can be used to blackmail users.

Ashley Madison

Ashley Madison showcased just how risky having large databases of very personal information can be

Emm suggests it would be better if ISPs, rather than credit card companies, were to verify the age of users every time they went online. The ISPs already have your bank details, so there’s no increased risk, and they could act as the gatekeepers to adult content. “On first access to the internet, I’m required to enter a password that I set up when I first established an account,” Emms says. Children would have separate accounts, which would automatically bar access to adult content, using existing filtering systems.

Whether the ISPs, who have already borne the cost of implementing the little-used parental control filters, would agree with Emms’ proposal is another matter…

Beyond our borders

Even if Cameron does succeed in forcing British pornography sites to implement an effective means of age verification, he has no jurisdiction to force foreign-hosted sites to do likewise. According to a piece of research conducted by internet filtering firm Metacert in 2013, 60% of all pornography is hosted from the US, with only 7% of porn sites originating in the UK. 

The government’s unsourced figures claims the UK’s top ten adult websites account for 52% of all site views, but even if that is the case, that still leaves half of all porn views outside of the government’s jurisdiction. And if tighter controls are imposed on British sites, porn seekers will surely migrate to the sites with fewer restrictions.

With no power to shut down these foreign providers, the government’s only option would be to force ISPs to block overseas porn, imposing unprecedented levels of internet censorship. “Cameron needs to clarify how he wishes to achieve his goals, given that most porn sites are hosted abroad,” says Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group. “To block them, the government would have to introduce a national firewall, which would censor sites for everyone, and would likely be widely circumvented.”

Indeed, the major ISPs already block access to child abuse images and illegal file-sharing sites for all of their customers, not only those who choose to switch on the filters, but even these measures are easily skirted. Users can still access banned sites using the Tor network, for example, and clones of banned sites pop up the moment a court orders them to be blocked. It’s a futile game of whack-a-mole that the authorities will never win.

There is no “one click to protect your whole home and to keep your children safe” as the Prime Minister promised in 2013. Once more, his proposals are top heavy on rhetoric, but short on solutions.

 

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