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UK porn age verification is a privacy nightmare
illustration Marianne Wilson

How the UK porn block will hurt more people than it’s meant to help

The age verification system makes the future of porn precarious for creators, users, and anyone who values freedom and privacy

Whether you get your kicks on free porn sites, support the new wave of ethical feminist pornography, or visit digital enclaves which cater to specific fetishes, the way we consume porn in the UK is about to change for everyone. 

From April 2019, the government is introducing compulsory age verification checks for adult websites, which means you would have to prove that you’re over 18 to access porn. This might seem like a straightforward and reasonable idea at first, but it has the potential to change not only the way we access, create, or sell explicit material in the UK, but the very framework of privacy and freedom of speech in the online space. According to YouGov, 76 per cent of all Brits and 53 per cent of the most frequent porn watchers were not aware of that the block was coming.

So how exactly is this going to work? Under the so-called ‘UK porn block’, every porn site would have to introduce age-verification software. It means that you’d see a landing page where you have to prove that you’re over 18 through a third-party service, by using the details of your government-issued ID or credit card information, or purchasing a special porn pass from a shop instead.

The British Board of Film Classification, which is in charge of managing the age verification, states that “for the most part, age-verification services are provided by third party companies, and not pornographic websites themselves. A number of age-verification providers have created new robust ways to verify age with minimal requirements for personal data in response to this new regulation coming into force.” It also assures that age verification providers are going to be regularly audited by a third party to ensure the high standards of data protection.

Privacy, of course, is the number one concern here: nobody is keen for their porn browsing history to be tracked back to their passport number. Thinking of walking to your corner shop at 2am to purchase a porn pass is unsettling, while the idea of schoolkids using international VPN to access porn videos seems to totally negate it. The controversial nature of the legislation and its potential consequences, however, are seen most clearly to those working in the adult industry.

Blake, a sex worker, queer porn maker, and activist, has been vocal about the potentially negative effect of the age verification legislation since the idea was first introduced. “Moving porn behind age checks is stigmatising. Making it harder to access porn will move conversations about sex deeper into the shadows, making it more difficult for people to find information about alternative and marginalised sexualities,” Blake comments.

"I have my reservations about the privacy implications of some of the age verification methods available, and have been doing careful research to try and find the best possible solution”, they add. “One good option seems to be AVSecure, which offers an age pass card that viewers can buy in a shop, showing ID at the point of purchase, which they say doesn't connect the purchase to the porn they watch. However, this requires my viewers to go into a shop before they can access my site, which will probably deter most people”.

Keen to provide the viewers with a choice of how to be identified, they point out that other age verification solutions might not be as secure and will also charge them. “Given my profit margins are already extremely slim as a DIY queer indie producer, I worry about whether I can afford this.”

It’s not the first time the UK government has tried to regulate pornography. In fact, in recent years porn has become a battleground for lawmakers and advocates for the freedom of sexual expression (and one’s ability to monetise it). Age verification is being introduced as part of The Digital Economy Act from 2017 –  famously, it also banned depiction of acts as squirting, face-sitting, fisting, BDSM and watersports in UK porn, a decision which was overturned at the end of January, partly thanks to the campaigning of Blake, obscenity lawyer Myles Jackman, and other sex-positive activists.

“If you’re going to have to give away your data to cum, you’ll probably feel safer going with one big established company than risking it with smaller DIY porn projects”  – Vex Ashley

But it’s not just the government pushing for age verification — there’s major corporate interest in seeing this one through. One of the biggest potential software providers (AgeID software, to be precise) is Canadian company MindGeek, which owns and operates such websites as YouPorn, PornHub, RedTube and several production companies including Brazzers. It’s sometimes described as ‘the Facebook of online pornography’. Despite dominating the porn market, MindGeek doesn’t have the best privacy record.  

According to reports from Open Rights Group amongst other sources, Mindgeek has had multiple severe data breaches and hacks in its still youthful history: seven since 2012. “We’re talking millions of users’ data leaked,” says Max Disgrace, filmmaker and community events organiser. “It’s quite shocking to consider how the UK government is buddying up with them to execute its plans. They have failed to look at the depth of what they are trying to address: what are the real implications of children and young people viewing porn?

“And how can we grow and develop as a society in response to this? This should have been a mass scale research project involving sex educators and experts, child protection services, child psychologists, sociologists, and porn industry folks on effecting real change.”

Today, pornography has a profound influence on culture and our understanding of beauty, intimacy, and gender among other things. The effect of mainstream porn on our sexuality is not one-dimensional: the fragmented hardcore clips on free tube sites are often misogynistic and catered to the heteronormative male gaze, create an unrealistic portrayal of bodies, and use slut-shaming slurs and racist tropes.

At the same time, not all porn is created equal. In recent years, we’ve seen the rise of smaller independent companies and producers striving to make a difference in the industry – to represent diverse bodies, focus on female and queer pleasure, bring artistic value to pornography and create a more open conversation about sex.

Vex Ashley, an adult filmmaker and creator of Four Chambers, says that small independent porn-makers will suffer the most. “If you’re going to have to give away your data to cum, you’ll probably feel safer going with one big established company than risking it with smaller DIY porn projects. It will drive even more traffic to the established porn tube sites owned by media corporation MindGeek who already has an unrivalled, obscene monopoly on every aspect of the porn industry”, she says.

“There’s often moral handwringing about how ‘oh, porn is all the same, it’s misogynistic and not a good depiction of the reality and diversity of sex’. But then society makes it so incredibly hard for porn with a different perspective to exist. These laws protect the status quo of traditional porn and limits diversity and creativity.” 

Age verification may seem like a more localised UK matter, but it affects independent porn producers worldwide, like San Francisco-based platform PinkLabel.TV, which hosts adult films from over 80 independent filmmakers from around the world and has been described as a ‘Netflix of indie adult films’, with strong emphasis on independent queer porn. It gets only 5-6 per cent visitor traffic from the UK, but is committed to implementing the secure adult software to keep their British viewers. The UK initiative also could be the beginning of more global change. “Some countries and businesses block adult websites. However, as far as I know, this is the first attempt at implementing age verification. We attended a presentation on age verification at XBiz 360 (the huge adult industry conference) and learned that there are about a dozen other countries interested in adapting similar laws”, says Jiz Lee, marketing director at Pink & White Productions.

“With impossible hoops to jump through regarding having a personal website, there are fewer online platforms are accessible for sex workers” – Hello Rooster

For UK-based porn performers and sex workers, age verification poses a challenge considering that their presence and visibility in the online space is directly linked to how they make their living. Performer, filmmaker, and educator Hello Rooster admits that it will affect their work by having to move to bigger third-party platforms, like ManyVids, PornHub’s ModelHub, and Findrow to host their content — simply because these sites have the means to comply with the age-verification requirements. “Especially with the emerging censorship of explicit content on social media, a lot of sex workers and porn folk are moving back to self-hosted websites. With impossible hoops to jump through regarding having a personal website, there are fewer online platforms are accessible for sex workers,” Rooster adds.

It’s hard to predict the real effect age verification is going to have on the UK porn landscape. Social media, for instance, is not going to be restricted, so there is still going to be plenty of places for under-18s to browse explicit content – Twitter, for now, remains relatively friendly for NSFW content. But the age verification debate taps into much bigger questions: what are we afraid of with online porn? What are we censoring, and who is the censor? In times where we’re fighting for diversity across culture, it looks like age verification is going to make the future of porn a little bit more mainstream, heteronormative, and corporate — certainly, a political question.  

Max Disgrace asserts this: “I think access to seeing porn that does not conform to mainstream standards, that shows queer, trans, fat, non-white, non-western, functional diversity bodies onscreen and people from different demographics and experiences ‘presented as valid sexual agents, valid people to desire’, as Rude Juud put it, is incredibly important. It’s a form of resistance, not just to these oppressive laws, but speaks to the oppression of the margins in general.”