The Digital Economy Minister, Matt Hancock MP, yesterday formally started the countdown to the introduction of age-verification processes for online pornography in the UK by April 2018. This aims to prevent anyone under 18 years old from accessing pornography online through introducing mandatory checks using a form of identification, such as a credit card.
FPA recognises the importance of protecting children and young people from unwanted and inappropriate sexual content. However we are concerned that the proposed measures could backfire by restricting open discussion with young people about sex and relationships. The best way to deal with any potential negative impacts of pornography (such as poor self-esteem or unrealistic expectations) is through education and the promotion of an open culture, in which people feel comfortable talking about sex.
In order to protect young people, evidence shows that relationship and sex education (RSE), including education about online pornography, may help to disentangle the competing emotions young people experience when viewing pornography. Providing an opportunity to discuss issues such as relationships, and concepts such as gender, consent and power can support young people to contextualise pornography. This can help them challenge some of the potentially damaging messages and stereotypes it can contain, along with other media sources such as films, TV and adverts.
We believe the best way to ensure that young people are equipped with the knowledge, skills and attitudes they need to develop safe and enjoyable sexual behaviour is through statutory, age-appropriate relationships and sex education (RSE).
There are many other concerns with the proposed method of age-verification, including privacy and security issues.
Dr Joss Wright, a cyber-security expert from the Oxford Internet Institute who was on the panel who advised the government about the plans, said:
"The timeline is unrealistic - but beyond that, this is one of the worst proposals I have seen on digital strategy. There are hundreds of thousands of websites where this material can be accessed and you are not going to catch all of those. They may well say there will be other magical ways to do the age check, but I very much doubt they will be non-discriminatory [against adults without credit cards], transparent, privacy-preserving and secure for end-users."
According to the Open Rights Group:
"The Government has repeatedly refused to ensure that there is a legal duty for age verification providers to protect the privacy of web users.”
These privacy and security concerns could lead to adults being unable to, or afraid to, access material which is otherwise entirely legal. This is a concerning restriction of people’s rights to sexual health and wellbeing.
This restriction seems especially unnecessary, considering how unlikely these measures are to actually succeed in their aim to stop young people from seeing pornography online. Research has found that by 16, 65% of people had seen some kind of pornographic material online. But it also found that the majority had seen it for the first time by accident, for example through a pop-up advert. Such adverts would not be prevented by these measures.
For Sexual Health Week this year, FPA is talking about pornography - and there's a lot to talk about.