How do you prove a porn user is 18 or older?

The British government announced last week that beginning July 15, Brits who want to browse X-rated content online will need to prove they’re over 18.

The U.K. is the first Western country to have such stringent guidelines, and other countries could follow suit.

The requirement stems from a so-called porn ban brought into law two years ago to protect children from accidental or “drive-by” viewing of adult material online.

But the question is, how do you go about proving a porn user is 18 or older?

Officials in Westminster have been discussing a number of age-verification processes, including one that would require potential users to upload government-issued photo ID to a private company.

“The introduction of mandatory age-verification is a world-first, and we’ve taken the time to balance privacy concerns with the need to protect children from inappropriate content,” said MP Margot James, the U.K.’s minister for digital and creative industries, in a statement released on April 17.

“We want the U.K. to be the safest place in the world to be online, and these new laws will help us achieve this.”

But people who have been involved in figuring out the way forward on age verification say the government hasn’t considered all of the ramifications.

The popular website Pornhub is one of the properties owned by MindGeek, a company registered in Luxembourg and headquartered in Montreal. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

“We explained that there is a privacy problem and that [the government] needed to regulate that,” said Jim Killock with Open Rights Group, who was included in consultations.

“Legislation omitted any mention of privacy. They didn’t even keep a backstop option to regulate privacy if they wished.”

Co-operating with government

The Digital Economy Act 2017 was passed to give the government more power to deal with copyright infringements, internet speeds, mobile phone contracts and online porn.

Those in the adult entertainment industry were surprised when shortly after the act became law, a Canadian company named MindGeek broke ranks with fellow content producers and sat down to meet the minister responsible for age verification.

Headquartered in Montreal, MindGeek owns popular sites such as Pornhub, YouPorn, GayTube and Playboy TV, and is estimated to have an 88 per cent share of the UK’s adult content market.

With annual revenues of around $400 million US, MindGeek operates a web of offshore accounts — from the Caribbean to Cyprus to Ireland to Luxembourg, where they are officially registered. Some of the company’s activities were explained in a 2017 documentary called Pornocracy.

In order to adapt to the new age-verification regime, MindGeek created AgeID, a site that will serve as a landing page to enable users to prove their age before accessing any of MindGeek’s content.

Lux Alptraum, a New York-based journalist who has studied the adult industry for years, doesn’t believe that MindGeek’s co-operation with the British government was the result of “suddenly [thinking] it was a good thing to protect children.”

Lux Alptraum is a New York-based journalist who has studied the adult industry for years. (Ellen Stagg)

“Pornographers, generally speaking, want to make money.”

CBC reached out to MindGeek’s offices in London and Montreal several times but didn’t hear back.

A UK government spokesman, Ken Hunt, said that providers of age-verification controls, like MindGeek, will need to comply with data protection laws.

‘Displacing the privacy argument’ 

The U.K. government has been trying to make the internet safer for children.

“If you type ‘stepmother’ into Google, the second page is porn,” said Serge Acker, CEO of a tech startup called OCL.

But critics worry that age verification won’t be effective. For example, sexual content can still be seen on social media. It can also be accessed using a virtual private network (VPN), which masks the user’s geographical location, or by browsing the dark web.

“The hypocrisy in this whole debate is that you can use VPNs, but then you’re displacing the privacy argument,” said Acker.

“VPNs store a lot of data about you. As long as a server understands where somebody comes in and somebody comes out, there’s a trace.”

Acker’s company has created a different kind of age-verification system, called Portes.

Instead of uploading government-issued ID to a website, users can show their ID to a store clerk and get a PortesCard for £4.99 ($8.70 Cdn) or £8.99 ($15.70 Cdn). A code on the receipt can then be entered into the Portes app, verifying the user’s age while also allowing them to use it on more than one device.

Jim Killock, executive director of Open Rights Group, warns that implementing an age-verification process endangers privacy in the U.K. (Jason MacGregor/CBC)

OCL’s PortesCards, also known as “porn passes,” will be available for purchase at corner shops once age verification comes into force.

The major distinction between AgeID and Portes is that the latter keeps users’ online activities completely anonymous.

A YouGov poll in March found that only about one-quarter of Britons knew about the impending porn ban. Of those, 67 per cent said they supported the age-verification requirement.


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