Following a meeting held at LSE earlier this month about the regulation of online pornography, Dr Andy Monaghan from Middlesex University and  LSE MSc Media Communications Governance student DaYoung Yoo provide an update about the provisions of the Digital Economy Act that are designed to make the internet safer for children. 

A significant step has been taken to make the internet safer for children. Under the Digital Economy Act (2017) (DEA), all online commercial pornography services accessible from the UK will be required to carry Age-Verification (AV) tools to prevent children from seeing content which is inappropriate for them. The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) was formally designated as the regulator for the age-verification of online pornography. Given the public consultation on the draft Guidance on Age-Verification Arrangements and its draft Guidance on Ancillary Service Providers, now just closed, the UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS) Evidence Group Seminar was held at the LSE on 13 April 2018. Experts from the BBFC, academia, the DEA, and NGOs within and outside of the UK gathered together to discuss what has been done and what should follow next.

To begin with, there are two major updates. For the introduction of the AV regulation, the BBFC has been cooperating with diverse parties including the commercial online pornography industry, and other regulators. Experts across various sectors who attended the seminar all welcomed the new legislation mandating AV in online pornography services. They agreed that the legislation is not going to solve all the problems, but it will make a start.

  • Age-Verification will be in place from the winter of 2018: To access online pornography, individuals must demonstrate that they are 18 or above. This does not mean that personal identification is required, but just proof of age. All online pornography accessed from the UK will be required to carry AV, including content hosted abroad as well.
  • The BBFC is working closely with the industry and other regulators: The commercial pornography industry has been supportive of installing AV. The BBFC and the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) have been collaborating to make sure that the online pornography providers and AV services also comply with the data protection legislation enforced by the ICO. The BBFC has also been working with the Gambling Commission and the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), sharing insights and know how on AV, Extreme Pornography and other harmful content on the internet.

As highlighted, the legislation is not a ‘silver bullet’. It should go hand in hand with various other efforts. What should be done next is primarily about education, circumvention, immersive technology and sharing good practice with the international community.

  • Education is as important as the age-verification regulation: Experts from different sectors all concurred with the importance of education. Not only Sex and Relationship Education (SRE) but also Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education (PSHE) is critically needed, which provides effective and relevant education to satisfy children’s curiosity about sex. It is expected that if pornography is not accessible to them due to AV, children will find other ways to learn about sex. Schools should serve this role; they should offer not just a counter-narrative to pornography, but quality education about meaningful intimate relationships. Some education professionals also suggested that pornography should also be a part of what school teaches. Another challenge education should tackle is that proactive discussion about sex and pornography is often deemed as uncomfortable. Due to this general attitude about sex, parents also find it difficult to have an open and informative conversation about the topic with their children. Therefore the importance of PSHE becomes even more significant. Unlike SRE, which will be a statutory requirement for state schools from September 2019, it is still under consultation whether PSHE will also be a mandatory subject taught in state schools. The experts also called for establishing PSHE as a compulsory subject so that children can seek help and be able to build good relationships.

In the meantime, assisting teachers and parents is also an important pillar of education, working in tandem with AV measures in online pornography. Experts in parenting say demystifying technology for parents will be helpful to build up their confidence in raising children in the age of personalised technological devices; As parents themselves have difficulty using technology, AV regulation is a useful measure that they can rely on. In addition, helping parents to demystify technology will be good support for them. Furthermore, many teachers feel unconfident about teaching sex education, while children are inquisitive about it. For teachers as well as parents, charities’ and NGOs’, support will be very helpful in restoring their confidence and educating children about sex adequately.

  • Circumvention is expected: Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and the ‘Dark Web’ are possible circumvention measures available to children. Discussions on how to track, monitor and address child circumvention activities should follow. It is also necessary to find ways to deal with a set of unintended consequences including circumvention by children and non-compliant businesses.
  • We should prepare children for the emerging highly immersive world: Immersive technologies such as Virtual Reality (VR) complicates the situation for AV. VR technology meets pornography and transforms the experience of viewing pornography to ‘experiencing’ pornography in 360°. Deploying age-verification into this highly immersive world may require different solutions. In the immersive environment enabled by VR, there is the possibility of virtual rape and sexual assault, which gives rise to numerous questions; can it be a legal issue?; If yes, then whether it is an online virtual offence or physical rape, and so on. Just how we are going to prepare children for this immersive world is a crucial question? It is only a matter of time before VR technology comes to its tipping point and becomes used widely.
  • Sharing good practice with the international community is essential: The UK is a pioneer in imposing AV regulation to online pornography and greatly welcomes the next countries to share its good practice with. However, some obstacles derive from cultural factors that inhibit the AV initiative from spreading globally. Notably, academic research about children and online pornography is hard to find in some countries, due to the punitive attitude towards the topic. Ethical anxieties exist in some cultures too. While acknowledging these difficulties, the UK expects international scale efforts to make the internet safer for children, by leading the discussion about, and implementation of, online pornography and AV.

Research published in 2017 by Dr. Elena Martellozzo and her colleagues shows that by 15, children were more likely than not to have seen online pornography; 65% of 15-16 year olds report seeing pornography. The same research also revealed that 42% of children aged 15-16, and 42% of those aged 13-14, answered that online pornography had given them ideas about wanting to emulate sexual practices they had seen.

AV is a good starting point, but it cannot solve every problem. Circumvention, non-compliant online commercial pornography providers and other issues will arise even after AV is in place. That is why a holistic approach is required, one that covers a wide array of topics including education, technology and so on. Education is paramount, and it should work in tandem with the new AV regulation in Section 3 of the DEA. Support, interest, collaboration and ideas from various sectors and stakeholders, inside and outside of the UK, is needed for the AV measure to succeed.

Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Media Policy Project nor of the London School of Economics.