Pornography elicited a decidedly unpleasant swelling in the trousers yesterday, when it became clear that the forthcoming enforcement of the Digital Economy (2017) Act will give a private company the keys to build a database of the porn watching habits of 25m UK adults.
The act requires that sites offering pornography in the UK must verify that the user is over 18, and that requirement is creating a need for 3rd party service providers who can do exactly that. It probably wasn’t the government’s intention to create a hugely valuable database to serve as a primary target for every hacker who fancies a spot of blackmail, or who thinks they can sell extracted data to somebody who does…and with all the noise of Brexit it’s easy to forget just how incompetent the government is with day-to-day legislation as well.
In theory, this section of the bill is easy enough; a regulator views websites and decides if they are pornographic or not. If they are deemed to be so then they need to have age verification, if they don’t acquiesce to this request (and many of them will be based outside the UK, and outside of the reach of parliament’s legislative arm) then the regulator can order UK Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block access to that site (and also to record who has tried to access the blocked site…sorry, maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned that until yesterday’s trousers were back from the dry-cleaners). The bill tackles the tricky question of, “What is pornography?” by defining it as material “produced solely or principally for the purposes of sexual arousal” and which would be rated ’18’ or ‘R18’ if submitted to the BBFC for classification.
Probably because of this requirement to determine how the BBFC would classify a piece the BBFC themselves have been named as the regulator. As I’ve written previously this is a terrible decision, for both us and them. However, the Digital Economy bill gives the BBFC more to do than make a porn/not porn decision; it requires them to shut down “extreme” porn websites.
The bill helpfully defines “extreme pornography” in the following manner…
It then goes on to refer the reader to sections 63(7) and 63(7A) of the Criminal Justice and Immigration (2008) Act for the definition of “extreme”. This act itself isn’t particularly restrictive, to be extreme the material must depict one or more of the following:
- An act which would threaten a person’s life
- An act which is likely to result in “serious injury” to a person’s breasts, anus or genitals
- Non-consensual penetration of the mouth, anus or vagina by anything (the act literally says, “by another with a part of the other person’s body or anything else”)
In cases where the BBFC decides that porn is extreme the only option the Digital Economy act gives it is to issue a notice to ISPs, compelling them to block the content in the UK.
The BBFC’s preference has always leaned towards cutting, rather than outright banning, and they have always worked with the film industry to negotiate with them, in detail, what must be cut in order to make a film acceptable. The DE act gives them no leeway to negotiate in such a manner with porn sites. If a site hosts thousands of videos, and one of them is deemed to be extreme, then the chances are that the whole site will vanish to everyone in the UK (but, remember, ISPs will still be logging who tries to visit it).
When what’s in question is rape-porn and snuff movies I doubt there are many who would argue that this is a terrible affront civil liberties. However, a grey area is opened up by the gap between what the BBFC is willing to classify as R18 and the definition of extreme pornography, as given above.
And, boy, is there a lot of stuff in that grey area. If your tastes run to watersports, spanking, face-sitting, scat, bondage, verbal abuse or just plain old watching adults dress up in giant nappies and get bottle-fed then you’re into the area of material that the BBFC would not pass as R18, but which also does not constitute extreme pornography.
What happens to websites containing that material? Again, the act gives no middle ground and grants no consultation process or advisory role to the regulator. They make a decision on whether age verification is required and another on whether pornography is extreme, nothing else. There is a wealth of material that the regulator cannot say that they would award an R18 rating, but nor can they, in good conscience, classify the material as extreme, by the definition used by the act.
It seems likely that the BBFC will default towards blocking such sites within the UK. It’s the least risky option for them, especially as most of the sites are likely to be small, specialised (ahem) businesses, based outside of the UK, who will not want the expense of a legal battle, and the ISPs themselves are unlikely to kick up a fuss about simply adding another domain to their blocked list. The communities of users are also likely to be small, and it’s hard to imagine they’ll even get a petition going, for much the same reason they’d be worried about appearing on a big database of sexual preferences.
All of this means that if you’re currently lying gagged and shackled, while a man dressed as a baby urinates on you and calls you a cuck then, for you, the party is almost over. The future is your favourite web-sites vanishing, your ISP recording that you went looking for them and a sea of ‘acceptable’ vanilla porn taking their place (if you’re happy for your name and address to be recorded against your visits to those sites).
You might not share any of the kinks mentioned, and it’s certainly hard to believe that if Pastor Niemëller’s famous warning had started, “First they came for the scat fetishists”, that anybody would have cared who they came for next, but the case is that the bounty that the Internet brought to some weird-as-all-hell people is being taken away by, quite literally, the “will nobody think of the children” crowd. And that’s got to smart a bit.
From April the Internet, as seen from the UK, will start becoming more conformist, more ‘normal’, more approved and state-sanctioned. It’s hard to defend the view that doesn’t also make it a lot more boring.
As somebody once wrote, “If you want a vision of the future, imagine [Sorry, this content is not available in your country]“