Against Porn site age verification laws


Note: This article is a few years old, but is relevant to the promise in the Queen’s Speech to enforce age verification. This is another of those things that keep me wobbling on our membership of the European Union. Do we really want to be locked into an open-air lunatic asylum, run by the usual suspects? Without thinking highly of their general qualities, the kind of people who run the European Union are not demented puritans. SIG

Protecting Children, Enslaving Adults: 
Latest Case Study
By Sean Gabb

I have just heard about the existence of the Authority for Television On Demand (Atvod). This is yet another of those “independent” bodies that exercise powers of compulsion delegated by the British State. Its powers derive from the Communications Act 2003, and allow it to regulate the market in streaming video. Its latest act has been to announce that large numbers of children – which it seems to define as persons under the age of eighteen – are watching pornographic videos on the Internet. To deal with this alleged problem, it wants a law to stop British banks from handling payments to any pornographic video site, anywhere in the world, that does not check the age of all its visitors.

At the moment, British sex sites are required to check the age of their visitors, whether or not they buy anything, and to make their records available to the authorities. Because they are outside the jurisdiction, foreign sites cannot be directly forced to do the same. But the British market is large, and Atvod hopes that blocking payment to foreign sex sites, unless they comply, will close this loophole. Every act of watching a pornographic video, free or paid, will then be on the record.

Now, before discussing the merits of this law, I need to state my general belief about children and sex. We live in a country where debate has become largely a matter of smears and synthetic outrage. If I do not make myself clear at the outset, I have no doubt I shall be accused of arguing for the legalisation of sex with children or of child pornography, or of holding some other opinion that may get my windows broken. I say, then, I do believe in the principle of an age of consent, and see no great injustice in setting it at sixteen. It should be illegal for adults to have sex with persons under the age of consent. It should, by extension, be illegal to use persons under the age of consent for making clearly sexual video and photographic images. I believe that such laws should be proportionate to the offence committed, and do not like the hysterical manner in which the laws we have are enforced. But these are details. I have no objection to the principle of an age of consent.

This being said, I turn to the matter of why the proposed new law should not be made. I will not take issue with the statistics that Atvod has published. I have no doubt that, as with all other factual claims made to justify even more government than we have – alleged anthropogenic climate change, foreign policy threats, domestic terrorism threats, anything about smoking or drinking and health, and so forth – these are falsehoods, liable to fall apart the moment the raw data is produced. But, since this is now an overwhelmingly reasonable presumption, I will not bother to examine the claims. Instead, I can think of three arguments.

First, the law would not put off any young person of reasonable intelligence. So long as no money left an account, how would any parent know that his credit card details had been borrowed to establish a false identity? Otherwise, many streaming video sites are entirely free, or accept payment only in Bitcoin or other currencies that do not pass through the British banking system. I do not believe any reasonably intelligent and reasonably lustful sixteen year old can be put off watching his favourite porn by any scheme short of permanent webcam surveillance of his crotch.

Second, it is not the business of the State to control the non-aggressive acts of children. That is a matter for parents. They should decide what their children are allowed to watch or do. This should not be seen as an outrageous or even a novel claim. Before the Children and Young Persons Act 1933, there was no law to stop children from buying cigarettes. I do not believe the law was generally enforced until the 1980s. When I was a small boy in the 1960s, I was able to buy cigarettes for my parents. Only once was I ever refused. As a teenager in the 1970s, I was able to buy cigarettes in bulk for my grandmother, and was never refused. It might have been different had the seller believed I was buying for myself. But the general view was still that this was a matter for parental discipline.

Third, bearing in mind it cannot be enforced, the law is really meant to control adults. One of the less pleasant results of the IT revolution has been the rise of soft authoritarianism. Increasingly, acts and products are not banned. Instead, we are watched as we go about our business. And to be watched is to be controlled. For example, I was an intermittent smoker between 1993 and 1998, and again between 2001 and 2010. What if I had been required to prove identity before buying cigarettes? What if my purchase records had been made available to insurance companies and the NHS? The answer is plain. I would not have bought any cigarettes.

This is the intention of the proposed law on pornographic video. Hardly anyone likes to admit to masturbating. Almost no one likes to say what he watches while masturbating. Having to prove identity before watching something would, for many people, have the same effect as an outright ban. The problem with an outright ban is that enforcement has to go before a jury, and juries will not usually convict for anything unless it involves children or animals or considerable violence. It also looks bad. Our modern rulers are squeamish about censorship laws. Where possible, they like to censor at one or more removes. Forcing people to identify themselves – “for the sake of the children” – is the perfect cover for stopping adults from masturbating at home.

Before ending this brief condemnation, I feel obliged to discuss one issue arising. I insist that it is up to parents to decide how their children behave. This covers what they do or watch at home. But do I really believe that there should be no law to stop a shopkeeper from selling hard core pornography to a ten year old? That does seem a reasonable inference from what I have just said about cigarettes. I could evade the question by talking about the pressure of public opinion in a genuinely free society – how this would force shopkeepers into a voluntary code. But this is an evasion. We do not live in a genuinely free society, and are unlikely ever to do so. Even if we did, there would still be unscrupulous shopkeepers. So my answer is that I probably do believe in such laws. Perhaps it should be illegal to sell certain items to persons who look below a certain age. These items would include guns, drugs – including alcohol and tobacco – and anything to do with sex.

But this is not an admission that should be stretched to cover what adults do on the Internet. This means that many children will be able to do things on-line that they cannot do face to face. But we do not live in a perfect world, and most schemes of perfection will only make things worse than they are. Children should not be able to buy or do certain things face to face. Extending this ban to cover on-line activities will probably be ineffective, and will unreasonably constrain the freedom of adults.

In closing, then, I denounce the Atvod proposal, and call on the relevant politicians to reject it.

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8 comments

  • This raises a good question. Your image above is a book called “Solo Sex”. Hmm. People under 18 is not a good definition of “children”: the age of consent is 16, for a start. But what is the age of consent for Solo Sex? Surely it’s as soon as everything is in working order?

    • A question I’m sure some of these people are getting round to ask is whether solo sex can ever be truly consensual.

  • I expect they’d investigate how much alcohol was involved before deciding that one.

  • [quote]”This article is a few years old, but is relevant to the promise in the Queen’s Speech to enforce age verification. This is another of those things that keep me wobbling on our membership of the European Union. Do we really want to be locked into an open-air lunatic asylum, run by the usual suspects? Without thinking highly of their general qualities, the kind of people who run the European Union are not demented puritans.”[unquote]

    I don’t know what gave you this idea, but as far as I can tell, the kind of people who run the European Union are the same kind of people who run most countries, including this one. I used to take the view that we would be better off in, but having wavered on the question, I think LEAVE is the best option, including in reference to issues such as this.

    • If people as far apart as you and I keep changing sides, all bets on the result must surely be off.

      • It’s a transition over many years, to be fair. I started on the Left and believed in the EU idealistically. As my views changed, I began to recognise the potential of the EU for Western preservation. Now I have begun to appreciate more fully its potential for Western destruction. One of the main influences in persuading me to the latter view was an essay on this site that articulated clearly something I had begun to suspect, that the EU did indeed have potential, but this would not be realised because of its anti-European nature. Unlike the author of that article, whom I seem to recall thought that the EU could be reformed to become ‘pro-European’, I think the whole edifice has to be dismantled. It’s not just that Britain should leave.

        On the subject in hand, my point is that I think the type of people who might bring in lunatic interventionist laws at national level are precisely the same type of people who run the EU. I think that is a demonstrable truth. You only have to switch on the TV or read a newspaper to see that they are all the same people, much like in the final scene of Animal Farm. The point about leaving the EU is that it would just be the ‘end of the beginning’. The same people would be in charge, and the relationship with the EU and the single market would have to be retained for very many years, but over time a distinctive legislative character would reassert itself in Britain and we would begin to see a different approach to issues such as this, albeit mediated by the demands of international law and the laws applied in other major markets that domestic businesses will have to comply with.

        Regarding pornography, I see the issue as highly tractable – indeed it illustrates one of the problems with libertarianism. Some people – indeed, some libertarians – might argue for state intervention on the basis that it causes harm and thus to intervene is not an undue imposition on individual liberty. Other libertarians would take the view that it is a matter for the individual. I don’t think the extreme libertarian view is realistic. It can’t just be a matter for the individual since what the individual does, even in the privacy of his own home, has an impact on others. On the other hand, I don’t want the state rooting around in my personal effects, which I think is an understandable concern. I don’t think this is just moral outrage or some kind of puritanism. I think there is a genuine concern about the wider harm this stuff causes, but it could be an example of how women are able to dictate the priorities. Clearly, free and unhindered access to pornography is not going to be popular among women, for fairly obvious reasons. They need to find men to marry (or men to trap in marriage, if you want to be brutally truthful about it). So the ‘harm’ I am referring to might be fictitious, or might be a reflection of the priorities of one group.

        But is there anything wrong with prioritising marriage and social stability? It all depends on your point of view, doesn’t it. I am not sure libertarianism provides a useful or insightful template for working through these issues. None of us want the state looking at our computer or policing our personal lives, but we don’t live in a utopia where we can have maximal personal freedom and social stability at the same time. There has to be a compromise, and one doesn’t have to advocate a modern Panopticon to recognise that there has so be some subordination to societal priorities.

  • I first heard of Atvod a number of years ago when they threatened Brian Gerrish and the UK Column people for running a video channel that was made to look like a mainstream TV news and discussion panel. From what I remember, they were forced to desist with the format because of this reason!

    I don’t know what those people are doing now, I didn’t really trust them and their strange niches of conspiracy material, but I did think it was absurd that they were pretty much prevented from conveying their information because their channel was “too television like” and that they would have to register as some kind of “on demand” TV service and apply to the rules of Ofcom and Atvod.

  • On its own this law may appear fairly pointless, as the majority of sites offering adult content are:

    a) foreign based AND
    b) free

    The owners of these sites will have no interest whatsoever in complying with this quixotic piece of state puritanism.

    So, given the likely “failure” of this new law, the next step will be to implement comprehensive censorship of the internet, which I suspect is the unspoken aim of all this. And people might be quite surprised just how much is banned – eg social media, photo sharing sites that might have a nude photo somewhere, medical and sexual health sites…

    Some of the issues are explored in a bit more detail here: http://sexandcensorship.org/2016/05/the-queens-speech-2016-online-censorship-now-official-policy/

    There is an obvious logic here.

    After all, if you wanted to censor the internet, how would you start? With porn, obviously, on the basis that few people could be expected to defend it and you could always use the “it’s for the children’s sake” mantra.

    Once the principle is nicely established, you could then extend the censorship to a variety of other material, especially unwelcome political and even financial commentary, which could always be labelled “extremism”.

    Before too long you have an internet that is as bland and barren as the BBC.

    As for Europe, yes a very good point Sean. It’s not easy to imagine the sort of odd types who promote this puritanism ever getting much traction with Germans or Scandinavians. Whatever else you might say about Brussels and Strasbourg, I have never heard anyone complain aboout their puritanism.

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