Theresa May’s Government has set its sights on further alienating an increasingly important young electoral demographic through pursuing prude, moralistic internet regulation that would make us all less safe.
By proposing that pornographic websites force users to input their credit card details to verify their age, the Government hopes to keep naughty content the preserve of credit card holding over 18s, from April 2018.
Aside from infantilising adults who do not have credit cards, the most obvious fault in this law is that, short of reviving her imperial past and launching mass invasions, the United Kingdom cannot regulate foreign servers. Instead, the Government may try to tell Internet Service Providers to block offending servers if they fail to abide by this new credit card check.
This would be a very, very bad move.
The Government can’t just make websites disappear. Despite the best efforts of more authoritarian regimes such as China or Turkey to shut offending sites down, they are still readily accessible through the use of proxy servers and the dark web. Most teenagers who have ever used school computers know about proxy servers, and consequently skirting Government moral censorship won’t prove logistically difficult.
What may be of more concern is that this move will expose many more people to the dark web. More under 18s than ever before would turn to conduits that also play home to easily accessible illegal narcotics, terror chatrooms, and horrific illegal sexual content. In short, we would be driving children to discover many more dangerous things than the pictures of boobies they were looking for.
For UK sites, this law will force adults to hand their credit card details to a minefield of companies in an industry not known for financial propriety. As the Adam Smith Institute notes, “pornography is especially attractive to fraudsters as victims are often too embarrassed to flag up unexpected payments to credit card companies.” Driving people into the arms of fraudsters is not responsible governance.
The Government has a duty of care to its citizens. It should not be nudging them to engage in more risky behaviour. This new danger the Government is pushing people towards will be exacerbated by another similarly poorly thought through digital policy ambition – the drive to outlaw the vital mechanism by which our personal data is protected online: encryption.
With policies such as these, it’s hardly surprising that last month the Conservative vote share among under 30s collapsed to just 21%, compared to Labour’s 64%.
Aside from putting personal financial security at risk, this law will have toxic social consequences. It will cause young people to be more ashamed and secretive about their normal, natural behaviour. A society that implies it is immoral, dangerous, and wrong for anyone under the age of 18 to watch sexual intercourse will shame teenagers for their natural feelings. At a time of growing mental health crisis, a state-enforced Victorian attitude to watching sex can only make things worse.
We shouldn’t go backwards. These things should be talked about and not hidden.
More worrying still, it is unclear what may count as pornographic content under this sloppy law. It could lead to the Government shutting down anything from written blogs, to educational content. Whilst sexual education is not all encompassing at school, it is incredibly dangerous to potentially prevent individual research and understanding through the myriad of excellent educational resources online.
The lunacy at the centre of this act is worth emphasising: the bizarre notion that 16 and 17 year olds are young enough to consent to have sex but not to watch it. It means that a seventeen-year-old must be forbidden from looking at a cheeky dick pic or some boobs. That’s insanity.
Most people watch porn, get over it.
The trouble with liberty-restricting legislation such as that within the Digital Economy Act, is that lawmakers evidently don’t want to be associated with taking an embarrassing stand ‘for porn’. That’s exactly why those who wish to restrict web freedom come for the most difficult areas first. Once there is a precedent for shutting down or controlling parts of the internet, the next battle will be harder to win.
This measure is an incredibly dangerous thin end of the wedge precedent for closing down websites that the government dislikes.
It is imperative to stand against this Government’s porn laws, yes to avoid exposing children to greater risk and adults to greater fraud, but crucially to stop an insane and dangerous precedent for web freedom.
Tom Harwood is a student at Durham University. During the UK’s EU referendum, he chaired the national student arm of the Vote Leave campaign. Tom currently works for Students For Liberty, and regularly tweets @TomHFH.