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Protecting children from hardcore adult content online

By Julia Hӧrnle


In the offline world the distribution of pornography has been strictly controlled. Age-verification and rating stems ensure that minors cannot access hardcore pornography. The British Board of Film Classification rates cinema and DVD content; content rated as R18 can only be shown in specialised cinemas with strict age-verification standards and certain pornographic content will not be rated for cinema or DVD distribution. On television, the Ofcom Broadcasting Code provides that the equivalent to R18 pornography cannot be broadcast at all and softer forms of adult content have to be scheduled at such a time that children are less likely to watch it.

While there has always been disagreement about what content falls into which category, by and large, the offline rating system has worked. The arrival of the Internet and its integration into mainstream media consumption in particular through the world-wide-web, peer-to-peer applications, video-sharing platforms and powerful search engines has provided easy access for children to hardcore pornography which includes explicit sex, sado-masochist practices, bondage, and fetish material. Children’s access may also include illegal materials which would not be rated by the BBFC, including those depicting rape and other violence, necrophilia, and bestiality. Not only has access to pornography become easier with the arrival of the Internet, the materials themselves have also become more extreme and more specialist. One of the most frequently accessed porn websites boast 63 different categories under the “straight” tab alone (interestingly only one of which is “female friendly”).

Surely the main responsibility for ensuring that hardcore adult content is not seen by children must be with the providers of such content. This is not about restricting adults’ access; it is about keeping children out (even though age-verification has a price tag attached to it, which eats into the profits of the adult industry; this is not the same as censorship). In fact, many UK providers are supportive of age-verification.

The Authority for TV on Demand (ATVOD) co-regulates TV on Demand on the basis of legislation, which provides that on-demand programmes which “seriously impair the physical, mental or moral development of minors” are subject to age-verification such as using a credit card or reputable age-verification provider. This regulatory step introduced in 2010 has already achieved some UK compliance, successfully driving standards up in this industry through co-regulation.

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However, many (if not most) hardcore porn services are “delivered” from outside the United Kingdom directly to UK computers. In particular in the United States, where freedom of speech is sacrosanct, there seems to be little appetite (or legal scope) for introducing age-verification measures for hardcore porn.

Hence from a UK perspective, it is timely to explore what other measures should be taken by regulators, governments and civil society to counter the harmful effects of such material.

Unfortunately there is no “magic bullet” solution to this problem. The government’s opt-out filtering system which requires householders to choose what type of content they wish to filter out from their home Internet access may be one tiny puzzle piece of this jigsaw. It requires householders to positively opt-into non-child friendly content such as pornography. But it will not be particularly effective.

Filters are notoriously inaccurate, as they are over- and underinclusive. They block harmless materials (and indeed material which may be helpful for teens in this context, such as sex education, medical, and sexual health information). Perhaps worse, filters let materials through which should be blocked. A recent study commissioned by the EU funded Safer Internet Programme testing parental control tools showed that underblocking for adult content ranged from 5-35%. Five percent of millions of adult websites is a large number. And who decides precisely what type of content is or is not family friendly? Filters are set by private companies in a process which is not transparent, nor accountable. This may be less of a problem, as fortunately these filters are voluntary and householders can simply opt-out of them, if they do not work for them. This may explain why just over half of parents in the UK have parental control filters in place (54%) and why less than a third (28%) of parents in Europe (average).

Filters may also encourage parents, schools, and educators to stay passive relying on technology instead of teaching teens about sex and relationships, however difficult that is. Keeping children away from porn must be part of the solution, but education and awareness raising are just as important. The government should invest serious money and efforts in educational campaigns and support. Internet access filtering just won’t do the trick.

Julia Hörnle is a Professor in Internet Law at Queen Mary, University of London, where she has been teaching and researching Internet Law since 2001 and is the Director of Taught Programmes at the Centre for Commercial Law Studies. She has taught Internet law internationally, for the prestigious British Council funded European Young Lawyers Scheme at the College of Law, at Beijing University of Post and Telecommunications, East China University of Political Science and Law in Shanghai, the University of Vienna, and the National University of Singapore. She is the Managing Editor of the International Journal of Law and Information Technology.

The International Journal of Law and Information Technology provides cutting edge and comprehensive analysis of Information Technology, communications and cyberspace law as well as the issues arising from applying Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) to legal practice. International in scope, this journal has become essential for legal and computing professionals and legal scholars of the law related to IT.

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Image credit: laptop computer with mouse on reflective surface close up. © dulezidar via iStockphoto.

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