Euan McColm: Porn ID’s a charter for data miners and hackers

The pornography block will offer a golden opportunity for extortion and fraud to internet criminals. Picture: Getty
The pornography block will offer a golden opportunity for extortion and fraud to internet criminals. Picture: Getty
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Savvy children will still find ways to watch harmful content as new threat to online privacy is unleashed, says Euan McColm

It was certainly a headline-grabber. In a rare example of something other than Brexit breaking into the political news cycle, it was announced last week that – as of 15 July, this year – anyone who wishes to access pornographic websites will have to supply ID proving they are aged over 18 in order to do so.

Fair enough, surely? We’d agree, wouldn’t we, that allowing young, impressionable people unfettered access to extreme, often violent, sexual content on the internet is unwise?

Perhaps, like we have, you’ve taken steps to prevent or, at least, limit this access. Anyone attempting to view porn using the McColm wifi will find themselves thwarted by a filter 
installed to prevent the kids from stumbling across – or, indeed, searching for – content that we consider inappropriate.

But there’s only so much one can do. The fact is that – no matter what steps one might take at home to prevent access to the seedier corners of the internet – it takes only a pal with 3G on his phone to provide a window to a world of pornography, extreme as you like and more.

The case for action builds, does it not?

And yet I find myself completely opposed to this particular wheeze.

It appears to be a straightforward enough process. Anyone who wishes to access adult websites after 15 July will be required to provide ID – such as a driver’s licence or passport – or to purchase from a local shop a pass (“two packets of cheese and onion and a porn card, please, Brian”) in order to unlock them.

We should, I think, be concerned about the impact of porn on young people. We should be worried about the expectations it may create and the insecurities it might nurture.

Widely available hardcore pornography has made necessary a new and uniquely awkward part of the traditional birds and bees conversation. And, just as we must address the unrealistic nature of porn, we should be talking to our kids about the ethical issues at play, about the implications for some of those involved.

This new law – a classic example of the “something” in the demand “something must be done” – simply cannot do what it is intended to.

It is worth remembering that children are not idiots. If it is possible for an adult to remove a credit card from a wallet and then input its details into a website, we should entertain the possibility that a child might be able to do likewise. Any of the age-verifying documents required to unlock porn sites may be found in any home. And nobody can know the age of anyone who submits them.

Well, yes, you might say, but isn’t it then simply the duty of a parent to ensure such items are removed from reach. To this, I’d reply that, by the age of eight, I knew where my parents kept everything. And I mean everything.

It is possible to circumvent all sort of internet blocks. Anyone who wants to watch broadcasts from overseas can do so with the help of websites that mask the location of one’s computer.

I’d expect sites offering a similar service to those who wish to watch pornography to do a roaring trade.

But it’s not just the naivety about the way in which the government’s porn-block will be thwarted, is it?

If an adult is accessing legal content from the privacy of their own home, whose business is it but theirs?

A consequence of this legislation is that a huge quantity of personal information will be handed over to age verification services. If recent history has taught us anything about private data it is that it becomes vulnerable as soon as it is passed on.

Perhaps you remember the hacking in 2015, of the Ashley Madison website. The site was used by people seeking extra-marital affairs whose personal information – from credit card numbers to sexual fantasies – was made public. Some reported receiving “extortion emails”. It was a car crash with devastating consequences for some of those involved.

Perhaps your sympathy for those cheating on their spouses is limited, but we can’t condone the loss of the right of privacy for those whose behaviour we find distasteful, can we?

In forcing people to register to access porn sites, the government might as well slap a hacker across the chops with a leather gauntlet.

There is, I concede, precedent to the requirement of the provision of identification for access to age-restricted items. Off licences generally ask for ID from anyone who appears to be under the age of 25.

But there is a world of difference between flashing a driver’s licence in the supermarket and uploading an image of it into the ether.

There is some pathos in the idea that the ministers and civil servants who drafted the legislation to create the porn-block thought they could outsmart a 12-year-old with a MacBook. This is legislation by the hopelessly out of touch.

It plays well enough with traditional Tory voters, many of whom, I daresay, are of an age where understanding the nuances of the internet and its possibilities is not a priority.

The internet can be a dangerous 
place for young people. And access to extreme and violent pornography is only one of the perils. Children need no ID to access the web channels of angry misogynists or sites dedicated to encouraging the development of eating disorders. Mainstream websites may recently have promised to remove content promoting self-harm and extreme dieting but as this content is chased from one platform it will soon land on another.

We do have to address the issue of young people accessing pornography but we have to do so while, at the very least, paying lip service to reality. This issue is, I’m afraid, more complex than the government’s plan might suggest.

We cannot hide pornography from children and so we must discuss it. How awful.