UK ‘porn block’: Government drops plan to stop children watching sex videos online

The long-delayed measure – one of the first of its kind in any democratic country – had been plagued by legal and technical difficulties

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Wednesday 16 October 2019 14:27
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UK ‘porn block’: Government drops plan to stop children watching sex videos online

Controversial plans for a “porn block” to stop children viewing adult material online have been dropped, the government has announced.

The long-delayed measure – first promised in 2015 and first due to come into effect last year – “will not be commencing” after running into trouble and after repeated delays.

“The government’s commitment to protecting children online is unwavering,” Nicky Morgan, the digital secretary, insisted, in a statement revealing the climbdown.

The policy would have required all adult internet users wanting to watch legal pornography to prove they are over 18 by providing some form of identification.

Websites that refused to implement the checks faced being blocked by UK internet service providers or having their access to payment services withdrawn.

However, the idea – one of the first of its kind in any democratic country – ran into legal, practical and technical difficulties.

Privacy campaigners protested that – despite the reassurances of age-verification sites – it would be possible to connect an individual’s browsing habits to their identity, which could then be leaked.

The government was also forced to exempt large social media sites from the ban over fears that it would result in the likes of Twitter and Reddit being blocked for adult content.

In June, implementation was delayed for a further six months because the government failed to inform the EU of its proposals.

Labour attacked that announcement as “proof that an important policy issue has descended into utter shambles”.

At the time, then-culture secretary Jeremy Wright insisted the hold-up did not mean the government was backing down from its policy.

“It is not a change in policy. Age verification needs to happen, and in the interest of the needs of children, it must,” MPs were told.

But, in a written statement, Ms Morgan, his successor, said: “The government has concluded that this objective of coherence will be best achieved through our wider online harms proposals.

“As a consequence, will not be commencing Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act 2017 concerning age verification for online pornography.

“The Digital Economy Act objectives will, therefore, be delivered through our proposed online harms regulatory regime. This course of action will give the regulator discretion on the most effective means for companies to meet their duty of care.”

She pointed to the loophole created because “the Digital Economy Act does not cover social media platforms”.

Ms Morgan also backed the principle of age verification tools, adding: “We expect them to continue to play a key role in protecting children online.”

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children made clear its concern. Tony Stower, the charity’s head of child safety, said: “We know that viewing this explicit material can harm children’s perceptions of sex, body image and healthy relationships.

“This delay is disappointing, but it is also imperative that the vehicle used to achieve protection for children from pornography is robust and effective. The government cannot drag its feet on this.”

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