UK Revives Dangerous Attempt to Verify Age of People Who Watch Porn

The Online Safety Bill is another attempt to protect children that could cause more harm than good.
Someone using a laptop on their lap.

The UK’s Online Safety Bill, first introduced in 2021, is back—this time with stricter rules for any sites that might feature adult content. 

The bill would require social networks, and any websites that allow users to upload content, to enact a “duty of care” that would require sites to proactively remove harmful or illegal content. People using adult websites might be required to prove they’re over 18 by using a credit card tied to their name, or otherwise confirming they’re legally adults through a third-party service. The bill is expected to be introduced to parliament over the next few months.

Advertisement

Failure to comply with UK media regulator Ofcom on these terms could result in fines of up to 10 percent of global annual revenues for websites, or being blocked from access in the UK.

Like FOSTA/SESTA and the recently reintroduced EARN-IT act in the U.S., the Online Safety Bill has the “intended” goal of making the internet safer for children. The effect of legislation meant to “save the children” is often sanitizing the internet and chilling free speech for adults. Unsurprisingly, porn sites are a main target of these proposed regulations.

“Many sites where children are likely to be exposed to pornography are already in scope of the draft Online Safety Bill, including the most popular pornography sites as well as social media, video-sharing platforms and search engines,” according to an announcement of the bill’s reintroduction from Digital Minister Chris Philp. “But as drafted, only commercial porn sites that allow user-generated content—such as videos uploaded by users—are in scope of the bill.” 

The bill is much more broad than that, however. This version of the bill adds several new offenses, including "genuinely threatening communications,” sending "harmful communications," and "knowingly false communications.” But each of these has their own caveats: if something is offensive without intent to cause distress or harm, it would be legal, and if someone posted misinformation but didn’t know it was misinformation, that would also be exempt. How lawmakers plan to determine the personal, interior motivations of individual people posting on websites is not clear, but they want to try to punish websites for these offenses anyway. 

Digital rights activist groups have spoken out about the ways this bill, as drafted, could actually make the internet less secure for everyone. The Internet Society warned that the bill “will force service providers to weaken or remove encryption to meet new content identification and removal requirements,” because the only way website operators could comply with these regulations would be to weaken any end-to-end encryption they have in place, so that they can try to proactively moderate content; this is a dangerous precedent for privacy and security online, they write, because the security practices of one sector can impact the whole internet. 

When the bill was first introduced in 2021, internet privacy rights organization Big Brother Watch called it “state-backed censorship and monitoring on a scale never seen before in a liberal democracy,” that “could easily result in the silencing of marginalised voices and unpopular views.”

The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee reported that the draft legislation “neither adequately protects freedom of expression nor is clear and robust enough to tackle the various types of illegal and harmful content on user-to-user and search services.” Similarly to how websites started going down before and immediately after FOSTA/SESTA was passed in the U.S., those opposing the bill are concerned that platforms and websites will start taking over-broad measures against all speech that might be seen as violating the regulations of this bill, to try to avoid penalties.