The U.K. Is Planning a “Porn Block.” Here’s What That Actually Means The U.K. Is Planning a “Porn Block.” Here’s What That Actually Means
03.14.2019

By April, it’s going to get a whole lot harder to watch porn in the UK (sorry, pun NOT intended).

According to multiple reports, the U.K. government is going to put in place a so-called “porn block” by either the start of April or Easter (April 21) this year. (It might also take longer. Stuart Lawley, CEO of blockchain age-verification company AV Secure says U.K. regulators “promised they’d give the industry 90 days notice,” before implementation, and that hasn’t happened yet. “I’d be amazed if it happens before the end of June,” Lawley says.)

Regardless of when it happens, the block will require every would-be porn viewer in the U.K. to provide their personal identification to verify that they’re over 18—the age at which it becomes officially suitable to watch porn in the Queen’s country.

This means that U.K.-based porn viewers will have to provide identification documents—a driver’s license, for example—to a verification service, like MindGeek’s AgeID, before entering sites featuring pornographic content. (MindGeek also owns multiple popular porn sites, including Pornhub, RedTube, and YouPorn.) Such a system will require people to log in every time they want to watch an x-rated video, using a login that’s directly connected to their personal identity. Before logging in, porn-viewing hopefuls will be subjected to nudity-free web pages where they’ll have to submit their email address, password, and an image of an official ID document—not a single, titillating thumbnail until they prove their age.

People will be able to get around sharing their personal data to watch porn. AgeID has teamed up with a privacy-focused company called OCL, which offers an anonymous identity authentication product called Portes. People can buy these “porn passes” at thousands of newsagents across the country for about £5 ($6.63 USD). Though they’ll have to show their IDs to buy them, like when buying cigarettes or lottery tickets, the information won’t get recorded anywhere (if they use cash, otherwise it will be recorded in their credit card transactions), and the pass will be good for eternal porn-viewing.

Still, asking people to go to a physical location to buy a pass to watch porn online is asking a lot. And if they’re buying on their credit cards, their identity is still connected to the purchase of a “porn pass.”

How did we get here?
The UK has been trying to restrict porn access for years. Back in December 2014, the country banned certain sex acts from adult content made and sold in the country—acts ranging from “aggressive whipping” and “facesitting” to “role-playing as non-adults” and “female ejaculation.”

A year before that, Prime Minister David Cameron gave a speech to the NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) about internet safety, which included a segment on how “online pornography is corroding childhood.” The NSPCC has in turn released regular research about children’s porn viewing, finding in a survey from 2017 that 82 percent of children between the ages of 11 and 18 “thought it was important to learn about the impact of pornography as part of relationships and sex education.”

A few years later, the UK’s Digital Economy Act 2017 officially set an 18+ age requirement for watching porn. The rule would apply to those who “make pornographic material available on the internet to persons in the United Kingdom on a commercial basis other than in a way that secures that, at any given time, the material is not normally accessible by persons under the age of 18.” How someone would make commercial porn that’s “not normally accessible by persons under 18” is unclear, but a site with porn on it is considered not commercial if “it is reasonable for the age-verification regulator to assume that pornographic material makes up less than one-third of the content of the internet site.”

The whole idea was confusing enough that its enactment kept getting pushed back. It didn’t go into effect with the Digital Economy Act in 2017, nor did it hit its previously scheduled start date last April. (At the time, the UK’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport said it would be ready to go “later in the year.”)

This delay took place because mandating identity verification in order to access certain websites is difficult, not to mention a serious red flag for people concerned about the government infringing on their privacy—and porn preferences.

So how can the government manage to block ALL the many websites out there with porn on them?
That gets into some very tricky questions about qualifying porn. (As my colleague succinctly put it, “One man’s porn is another man’s chair leg.”)

Social platforms are already asking—and inadequately answering—these questions. Facebook has thousands of people moderating its content, and debates on what’s censorable have hinged on whether or not videos contain “full areola.” Then there’s Tumblr, which banned “adult content” on December 17, 2018, with the exception of “certain types of artistic, educational, newsworthy, or political content featuring nudity” and “female-presenting nipples” in the context of “breastfeeding, birth or after-birth moments, and health-related situations, such as post-mastectomy or gender confirmation surgery.”

Related: Tumblr’s Adult Content Ban Makes a Bad Case for Centralized Social Platforms

In the U.K.’s case, a body called the British Board of Film Classification has been appointed to oversee the age-related “porn block.” As of August 20 last year, the BBFC’s chief executive, David Austin, said the organization’s definition of porn has been the same since the 1980s: “Content whose primary purpose is sexual arousal.” He added, “We know what we’re doing. We know what’s art and what’s porn.”

Then there’s the sheer number of porn-containing websites. As an impassioned Wired U.K. op-ed author, Roland Manthorpe, writes, “There are literally millions.” MindGeek-owned sites like PornHub will likely be affected, since MindGeek is providing age verification software, but that’s not nearly the beginning or the end of online porn.

What are the implications?
Attempting to dictate what porn is, and who should be watching it, smacks of censorship. Manthorpe outlines a few other important implications in his op-ed. One is that it will just force underage porn viewers to look elsewhere for adult content, such as the social platforms where the U.K.’s block won’t apply (Reddit, Twitter) or the ever-looming specter of the dark web. Then there’s the most glaring issue, which is that signing in with your government-issued ID to view porn means there will be a staggering database out there of U.K.-based people’s porn watching habits. According to Pornhub’s data, there were 33.5 billion visits to the site last year.

Legislating sex is always controversial. But a giant database of porn viewers can be downright scary for, say, Libertarians, people concerned about the government discriminating against certain sexual practices, and really anyone who cares about personal privacy. (However, AgeID’s FAQ page states that “no information about what sites the user accessed or how much time they spent online is stored.”)

How will people be able to keep their identities private while watching porn once the block starts? Like, can blockchain help?
VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) come to mind first. Such networks let you access the internet from one geographic location while making it look like you’re reaching it from another. One decentralized VPN service, Lethean.io (named after the River Lethe, the river of forgetfulness in Greek mythology), came out of the woodwork ahead of the upcoming “block”:

“We’re not advocating for anyone breaking the law,” says the company’s COO, who preferred to go by just his first name, Casey. “It’s important for us to be able to browse the internet anonymously and privately.” Lethean, he explains, currently runs on Monero’s codebase, “so any transactions are actually hidden by Monero’s technology.” The technology obscures transactions by essentially jumbling a bunch of different ones together, so you can’t tell where any individual one is coming from or going to—meaning people who are under 18 in the U.K. will technically be able to use it to watch porn by pretending to be located elsewhere.

Casey admits that you don’t need to buy a decentralized VPN with a privacy coin to effectively hide your location online. Doing so is just an extra precaution, so no centralized VPN service holds your personal information. Besides Lethean, there are a few other blockchain-based VPNs, including the Mysterium Network, which runs on Ethereum, and Substratum, which technically bills itself as a decentralized VPN alternative. Tor, a private browser, does obscure a user’s location, but users don’t have control over where it shows them to be located. So someone could end up using Tor to pretend to be not in the U.K., only to appear that they are in the U.K. It’s a possible way to get around the “block,” but not entirely reliable or efficient.

Then there’s AV Secure, which is working with U.K. regulators to provide a pass like the one supplied by MindGeek’s AgeID. Called AgePass powered by AV Secure, the voucher will be available for about $10 across 60,000 retail stores, like drug stores and gas stations, in the country. Alternatively, people will be able to sign up for the voucher online for free, providing their license, credit card, or passport. That information will go directly to third party data companies, which Lawley says are under contract not to keep people’s personal data, so AV Secure doesn’t hold any of its users’ information.

AV Secure has its own, private blockchain, which CEO Lawley says has a processing speed of more than 2,500 transactions per second. Each time a user of the company’s AgePass visits a new porn site, the system will generate a blockchain-based “throwaway token,” so they’ll have to get a new credential with each site. Getting a new credential won’t require any extra work from the user. It’s just a way to ensure their porn preferences don’t get tracked.

“We thought, what a fantastic application for a non-crypto blockchain,” Lawley says, of first learning about porn-related age verification in the U.K., back in 2015. (“It was an election pledge of David Cameron at the time,” he says.)

“With adult content, it would be a sparkling use case to be able to separate people’s real, full-detailed identity from literally an age badge blockchain credential [where] the recipient sites only needed to see the credential, and not the rest of the [person’s] details,” says Lawley. “We’re talking potentially 25 million people here in the U.K. that look at adult sites every day. And in truth, they look at them multiple times a day.”

Thanks to the U.K.’s “porn block”—and people’s dedication to porn—Lawley has high hopes that AV Secure will become the most trafficked blockchain.

Photo courtesy AV Secure website.