Age Gating Explicit Content on the Internet: A Multifaceted Issue

VoiceBox's response to the UK's plans to age gate explicit content online
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Created by VoiceBox

Published on Feb 23, 2022
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The UK government is having another go at introducing age verification measures for pornography since their failed attempt in 2019, as part of the new Online Harms Bill. 

The measures were announced by Digital Minister Chris Philp on Safer Internet Day, and could include age verification technology, or having a third-party service confirm age against government data.

We think it is a positive thing to try and prevent the harms that come from children watching porn. But as with any new legislation, there are other variables that should be considered. Of course there are concerns around data privacy, as porn sites will be granted access to sensitive information about individuals that would otherwise be kept anonymous. Whatsmore, it may have a negative impact on creators whose livelihoods depend on the curation of adult content, as many people might not be willing to hand over their information – even if they are over 18. 

It will also be interesting to observe how social media sites such as Reddit and Twitter will handle the government crackdown, as they are among the few mainstream social networks that host explicit adult material within their guidelines. When Tumblr decided to ban such content from it’s platform back in 2018, it was met with huge backlash from the community and it lost nearly a fifth of it’s users. We will be waiting to see whether Reddit and Twitter put an age verification step in to allow age-appropriate users to still post and view explicit content, or if they will remove it entirely.

As discussed in our report about Onlyfans, many creators use Reddit and Twitter as an advertising platform for their paid-for content on subscription-based websites. Others use Reddit and Twitter as a form of self-empowerment, finding like-minded people who want to celebrate their bodies and have important discussions around sex and consent. Therefore, many have argued that these creators might be greatly impacted by this decision. 

As is so often the case with legislation, it acts as a hammer when a scalpel is needed. There are clear issues that need to be addressed in regards to children having unfettered access to hardcore pornography. But there are instances that can utilise “adult” imagery – such as within sex education – which can provide valuable information for young people that are likely to fall by the wayside with this hamfisted approach.

Many feel that there are still many other changes to be made. It has been argued that the proposed legislation from the government is a subpar alternative to an ongoing issue that must be addressed systematically. It’s obvious that the porn industry needs more specific regulation, rather than only imposing an age ban on viewers. Sexual exploitation of women and minors, dangerous sexual practices and extreme violence are among the issues that must urgently be tackled in order to make porn safer. While it is important to put regulations in place to prevent the harms caused by children watching porn, this legislation should not be the only solution to the other major issues happening in the porn industry.

Furthermore, sex education curriculum in many schools needs a complete overhaul to acknlowedge and educate about consent, sexual violence and relationships within the LGBTQIA+ community. Children often enter adulthood with no knowledge around such matters, which only further increases the risk of sexual assualt, sexually transmitted infections and the pressure to perform without enjoyment. 

The issues surrounding pornography are many and varied, and will not be resolved by one piece of legislation (or one article). As with anything else, people’s relationship to online pornography and adult content will vary from person to person, and will be nuanced in such a way that there cannot be a one size fits all approach. Most people would agree that children ought not to be accessing the extreme hardcore pornography that permeates the internet, and in that regard simple age gating is a tempting option. Any attempt at age gating the internet throws up concerns about privacy and the risks of driving content “underground”. Should we feel confident giving the private information needed for age-checks to pornographic sites? Will children simply accept the restrictions, or will they delve deeper into the internet, perhaps into riskier sites than Reddit, to satisfy their curiosity? Of course there is a balance of risk and reward that comes with this regulation, and we certainly hope that the government has assessed the risks seriously and accurately – but that remains to be seen in the coming months and years.

We want to hear your thoughts about this new legislation. It’s important that your voices are heard, so please do get in touch with us if you have any thoughts about the regulation of  sexually explicit content online.

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