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How porn monopolies will feast on UK age verification laws

United Kingdom
Sexual Politics
Photo credit: wetwebwork (CC 2.0)

What do you see as the greatest risk of the UK's proposed age verification laws?

Making people provide personal details in order to access porn could lead to their data being compromised and there is an extreme risk of privacy loss for any person using the service.

After hearing about the meetings MindGeek had with government officials regarding the UK Digital Economy Act, I knew they would be finding a way to monopolize on the new age verification law. MindGeek own almost 90 per cent of the popular tube sites such as Pornhub, RedTube and YouPorn, and now they stand to increase their huge market share even further by offering age verification services to smaller sites. The software they have created, AgeID, identifies users by credit card, passport or driving license details.

The requirement to supply personal information brings huge privacy and security risks, and could lead to a database of user information vulnerable to a breach. It is predicted that up to 20 to 25 million people will use age verification software in the UK to view porn. MindGeek will have masses of information on viewers porn browsing history, what viewers are clicking on, when they’re looking at it, what they’re paying for... which could lead to a huge database of people's private sexual preferences. If this database was ever hacked it would make the Ashley Madison hacks seem small in comparison.

'The requirement to supply personal information brings huge privacy and security risks, and could lead to a database of user information vulnerable to a breach'

My initial concerns about this were confirmed a couple of months ago when the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) released their draft guidance on the plans. Although there are guidelines in the report which enforce verification systems to take the minimum amount of personal data necessary to prove the user's age, there are no guidelines about the collection of viewing habits. This will also give MindGeek hugely valuable analytics on competitor companies using their verification tool who are not part of their collection. The privacy policy for AgeID states, ‘we also may use these technologies to collect information about your online activities over time and across third-party websites or other online services.’

For viewers who do not feel comfortable using online verification tools there is another option. There is one private company, AVSecure, offering to perform face-to-face age verification with passes bought in stores. The Age Verification Card promises to be a simple and secure service that will protect user's identity. The pass will be available to buy in retail stores and supermarkets across the UK. But there is still no guaranteed privacy with this proposed plan. Once you log into a site with one of these porn passes they will use a cookie to identify you. This could also lead to leaks that contain information linked back to devices, homes, or workplaces.

It's also very interesting – and not at all surprising – to see that MindGeek made AgeID to monopolize on the new age verification law, but, of course not wanting to lose their own under 18 viewers, they have now created their own VPN! VpnHUB will allow underage users in the UK to bypass the age verification controls by avoiding being detected as a UK viewer.

How will this impact your work and the work of other creators? How will it impact site operators?

The age verification laws are going to disproportionately affect smaller low-traffic sites and independent sex workers who cannot cover the costs of installing age verification tools.

It will also impact smaller sites by giving MindGeek even more dominance in the adult industry. This is because the BBFC draft guidance does not enforce sites to offer more than one age verification product. So, all of MindGeeks sites (again, 90 per cent of the mainstream porn sites) will only offer their own product; Age ID. The BBFC have also stated that users do not have to verify their age on each visit if access is restricted by password or a personal ID number. So users visiting a MindGeek site will only have to verify their age once using AgeID and then will be able to login to any complying site without having to verify again. Therefore, viewers will be less likely to visit competitor sites not using the AgeID technology, and simultaneously competitor sites will feel pressured to use AgeID to protect themselves from losing viewers.

A lot of small porn sites are only just breaking even financially. With a drop in UK traffic, from those people who don't trust that their details are going to be safe or from those who will stick with the sites offering AgeID, more companies will be pushed out of business. Or, they will lose money and will be forced to make lower budget productions and then performers wages will be subsequently cut.

Do you believe it's necessary for government to intervene here at all and if so, what are potential alternatives to age verification technologies?

'We need to change pornography to portray more realistic sex which clearly shows consent and respect to all parties involved'

I understand the government concern, and on the surface age verification seems like a good idea – protect children from seeing porn too young. However, there is a huge lack of credible evidence supporting the effectiveness of age verification checks to protect children from sexual content. How will the site guard against teenagers noting down parents details whilst retaining ease of use for the adult users?

Those of us opposed to the plans do not think age verification will be effective and ultimately don't think that censorship is the answer. For as long as there has been online pornography, there have been calls to give government censors the power to shut it down, and this is usually for the 'sake of the children'. But this type of censorship is a poor answer to the sexual dysfunction of our society. In this internet age it's inevitable that children will see things they probably shouldn't, but we shouldn't try to fix a social problem with technology.

I have repeatedly stressed that we need to change pornography to portray more realistic sex which clearly shows consent and respect to all parties involved. And we need government funded compulsory sex education in schools, given by independent experts rather than untrained teachers. We need to give young people space to ask questions and explore their sexuality without shame.

Update: An AgeID spokesperson has informed New Internationalist on 19 July that when a customer creates an AgeID account, they submit an email address and password that are encrypted on the server. The spokes person states that they are then transferred from AgeID to a third-party site to verify their age. AgeID's spokesperson also states that AgeID does not store personal data during the verification process. Furthermore, the company notes that it updated its privacy policy in March of this year. The policy no longer states that the company will use technologies to collect information about users' online activities.


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