Before the dawn of the mainstream Internet, underage access to pornographic content meant trying to sneak a glance over someone’s shoulder at a well-thumbed adult magazine.
Or, if you were ‘lucky’, finding a VHS cassette in a friend’s dad’s cupboard, behind the coats and shoes, in a box, inside another box, in an envelope marked “holiday video”. Such things apparently happened.
With the dawn of the Internet, things have certainly changed. With just a few clicks, one can find pornographic material, with ‘graphic’ often being the operative word. What adults choose to watch is their business, but children being able to access much of the content on today’s platforms is probably not what most parents want.
So in the absence of traditional parental controls, the UK government has stepped in to prevent youngsters from inadvertently stumbling across adult content. From July 15, the country will adopt a checking scheme that will require profit-making sites with more than a third of their content pornographic in nature to verify visitors’ ages.
It’s believed that the AgeID system, operated by major porn site owner Mindgeek, will one of the key facilitators of that. People who want to access porn sites will be required to provide scans of their driving licenses or passports, provide credit card details, or activate via SMS. Users’ details will then be verified by a third-party.
There will be other ways to obtain verification too, since some shops will be selling special cards containing a code that people can use to access sites like Pornhub and YouPorn. However, eligible sites that refuse to play by the verification rules will be blocked by local ISPs, preventing them from doing any business in the UK.
In theory, at least.
While the aims are noble, circumvention of this entire scheme (for adults and children alike) lies just a few key presses away. Subscribing to a VPN will effectively drive a coach and horses through the legislation, providing no-fuss and instant access to all age-compliant websites, and those that refuse to comply too.
The government acknowledges that this could happen, but it wants to be seen to be doing something. Indeed, as part of the Digital Economy Act 2017, the UK will become the first country in the world to proudly deploy such a system. However, thanks to many years of website blocking on the piracy front, large numbers of people will already have the tools at hand to make July 15 seem like life on the 14th.
Herein lies the problem. As website blocking increases – whether that’s via direct ISP action or the verification scheme detailed above – people have more and more reasons to learn how to evade those blocks. It doesn’t really matter whether it’s adults or even teenagers spreading the knowledge, on July 15 (if not sooner) circumvention methods will spread like wildfire.
And this can only mean bad news for those who have worked incredibly hard to have many hundreds of pirate sites blocked in the UK over the past nine years or so.
Once those VPNs get fired up to access XVideos or whatever other sites tickle people’s fancies, it will soon become apparent that every single one of those previously blocked torrent and streaming portals will become accessible again too.
Good VPNs do not discriminate and they don’t care what people are looking at. Their aim is to protect their users’ privacy and make web censorship a thing of the past. The only saving grace in respect of the verification scheme is that decent ones also cost money, so teenagers may not always have the means to pay for one.
That raises the possibility – or even likelihood – that many people will take the easy option of downloading a ‘free’ VPN from Google Play or Apple’s variant. Many of these have a questionable track history, especially when it comes to privacy, so people flocking in this direction won’t be doing themselves any favors.
All that being said, the architects of the scheme say that the potential for circumvention of the verification scheme is low. Perhaps today’s teenagers are less interested in seeing forbidden content than those that went before and will embrace the scheme with open arms. We shall see.
For most adults, however, it seems likely that handing over passports, driving licenses, and credit cards will only add to the already considerable but relatively straightforward pressure of remembering browser history wiping and incognito tabs.
In the meantime, there’s always The Pirate Bay, RARBG and all the other ‘pirate’ sites offering adult material. None of them will be included in the verification scheme but could see a small surge in traffic, if ‘porn-pass panic’ sweeps the country. And if it does, they’ll be easier to access than ever before.