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Legislative cock-up means porn filters may not come for six months

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The controversial age-verification system for online pornography due to be introduced in the UK this summer has been delayed for a second time.

Former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron proposed that each household in the UK could have pornography blocked by their Internet Service Provider (IPS) unless they opted-in to view adult content, as a means of ensuring that children browsing the internet would be prevented from accidentally stumbling across pornography.

Under the Digital Economy Act, commercial porn websites are required to implement controls to prevent minors from accessing pornography. Plans to introduce age-verification checks were announced in 2017, but have been beset by criticism and delay. The government originally intended to introduce the system in April 2018, but the plans were pushed back to July 15 2019.

The system, which would be the first of its kind in the world, would require all adults who wanted to watch pornography to prove that they are at least 18 years old by providing some form of ID.

The scheme will be overseen by the British Board of Film Classification, which will require private companies to perform their own age-verification checks. Websites which do not implement the age-verification checks could be threatened with fines, or face being filtered by UK ISPs. Visa and Mastercard have pledged to withdraw their payment services from any company which does not sign up to the scheme.

According to a statement to the House of Commons from culture secretary Jeremy Wright, the roll-out will be delayed due to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport failing to notify the European Commission of the policy in time

“In autumn, we laid three instruments before the house,” said Wright. “One of them sets out standards that companies need to comply with. This should have been notified to the European Commission and it was not. This will result in a delay in the region of six months.”

Wright added that the government would not back down from the policy, stating that: “Although this is an apology for the delay, it is not a change in policy. Age verification needs to happen and in the interest of the needs of children, it must.”

Labour MP Cat Smith said that Wright’s announcement was “proof that an important policy issue has descended into utter shambles.”

While the effort to protect children from adult material has been generally welcomed, the introduction of age verification has attracted criticism from various groups, particularly with regard to privacy. Campaigners have pointed to previous leaks of sensitive information - such as the mass leak of user data swiped from extra-marital dating service Ashley Madison - and warned that it could be possible to connect an individual with their private browsing habits.

Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, said in a statement earlier this year: “The government needs to compel companies to enforce privacy standards. The idea that they are optional is dangerous and irresponsible […] data leaks could be disastrous and they will be the government’s own fault.”

Others are concerned that the implementation of the policy would give vast influence to Canadian porn giant MindGeek, which owns PornHub, RedTube, YouPorn, Brazzers and dozens of other adult sites catering to practically every legal fantasy under the sun. MindGeek offers an age-verification tool, AgeID, which has been in use in Germany since 2015 and which it plans to make commercially available to all porn sites accessible in the UK. According to MindGeek, the AgeID verification process is handled by a third party, so individuals seeking verification will not need to reveal their identity to AgeID. It added that AgeID will not store any identifying information.

Some critics of the policy point to the ease with which age-verification systems could be bypassed using virtual private networks (VPNs) in order to appear to be accessing pornographic websites from different countries. In April, a Guardian report found that bypassing the verification system was possible in minutes using a fabricated credit card number.

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