The latest possibly-not-that-well-thought-out idea in the debate about protecting children online comes from the little-known QUANGO The Authority for Television On Demand, or ATVOD for short. As the catchy name suggests, ATVOD has a responsibility for regulating on-demand video programming in the UK, a large portion of which will be delivered by internet or internet-like connections. One of their regulations prohibits the hosting of many forms of pornography unless behind a paywall or similar to prevent access by under-18s1, i.e. no free samples.
But it appears ATVOD have decided to exceed their remit of regulating UK content in the name of WON’T SOMEONE THINK OF THE CHILDREN! They’ve spotted a problem in that non-UK internet sites do not need to follow UK rules (Surprise, surprise) and that many sites offer free samples before paying. Being powerless to intervene directly and enforce UK rules on them, ATVOD decided to follow the money instead and have asked the banks to block payments to these sites. Whoever came up with this idea clearly hasn’t spent enough time on the internet (Or talking to politicians) for several reasons.
First, ATVOD and the banks are arbitrarily deciding what is right and wrong with no democratic oversight. That the banks might acquiesce to this request is in itself worrying, although we only have ATVOD’s word on it that they are thinking of doing so. There were many statements from the Home Office indicating that ISPs were going to introduce a default-block on porn on the internet, which turned out to be fibs…
Secondly, we are not the world’s police and our laws are different from other countries. What is illegal to access until you are 18 in this country might be quite legal at 16 in another, or might be totally unlawful regardless of age. The UK is a small part of the internet as a whole2 and it does not seem likely that the majority of foreign providers will want to pay a UK regulator and have to work with UK standards. By extension, they would also need to work with and pay money to the other 205 sovereign states of the world.
Unless you happen to be America, a single government does not carry anywhere near enough influence to alter de-facto internet standards like that. Even if you are America, it usually doesn’t work.
And finally, the attempt to block money appears to be born entirely of spite, or perhaps protectionism for the UK VoD industry. The majority of foreign content providers are not going to care enough about the UK market to do anything. That means the content ATVOD is so worried about – the free samples of pornography that is not behind a paywall – will continue to be accessible.
There are better ways to do this. Reputable adult sites in general do not want kids accessing them, as it is bad publicity and kids generally do not have the money to pay for anything so there is little point. Voluntary systems existed such as ICRA, but that system failed due to lack of takeup. Perhaps if organisations like ATVOD cooperated internationally to promote such voluntary systems rather than trying to force their own rules on everyone else, we might make some progress.
1. In practice, a paywall that requires a credit card to prove you are 18. Rules on credit cards will differ between countries, so this is another area that would need country-specific handling.
2. About 2%, based on Wikipedia.