UK confirms porn censorship powers to be handed to film classification body

The UK Government has formally announced plans to hand powers to censor online pornography to the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC).

The decision, which requires approval by Parliament, means that the body which judges what classification movies should be given, will now be handed sweeping new powers to block explicit online websites in the UK.

Age verification now required by all sites offering adult content

As we have reported previously, earlier this year the UK Government passed the highly controversial Digital Economy Act. It required all pornography sites available in the UK to verify the age of its visitors. And this requirement is not just placed on UK-based porn sites, but all international sites as well.

Those that fail to comply will be blocked to UK internet users. Given that the UK makes up a small percentage of the overall users of international adult sites, it seems likely that this will mean many of the most popular porn sites will soon become unavailable.

And remarkably, the UK Government has decided that it is the country’s film classification body which is best placed to wield this sweeping new power.

In a press release announcing the formal nomination of the BBFC, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, described the BBFC as having “unparalleled expertise in classifying content”.

Film classification and online censorship are not the same

It is certainly true that they are well placed to decide whether content is deemed suitable for an adult audience or not. But they have no expertise in classifying online content and nothing in their history suggests they have any experience of enforcing state internet censorship.

Because that is what the impact of the Digital Economy Act boils down to. The new law empowers the Government to block access to any international adult site which fails to comply with their arbitrary demands.

It is not yet clear how broadly these new powers will be enforced. Both paid-for and free-to-access porn sites are likely to be targeted initially when the new powers come into force in April next year. But there is plenty of adult content available on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter too.

They offer no age verification process, so presumably, the UK Government will be well within its rights to block those too. Whether they will want to go down that Chinese route of mass censorship remains to be seen, but they do now have the legal powers to do so.

Speaking about the BBFC nomination, UK Government Minister Matt Hancock went into full-on propaganda mode, saying “One of the missions of age verification is to harness the freedom of the internet while mitigating its harms… The BBFC is the best placed in the world to do this important and delicate task.”

He did not address the myriad of concerns that have been raised about the new powers, not least by the United Nations Advocate for Free Speech, David Kaye, who has argued that the age verification process “falls short of the standards of international human rights law”.

How to easily get around the UK’s porn censorship

Details about exactly how the BBFC would be able to apply these new powers will be published shortly. It is believed that they will have the power to require British-based Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block access to any non-complaint site.

But they will also be able to notify payment-services providers and other ancillary service providers about non-compliance. The intention of that would be that services like PayPal would withdraw their service to the site in the UK in support of the British Government’s policies.  Whether they would do so remains to be seen.

Of course, in putting together this hugely draconian piece of legislation, the British Government has overlooked one rather glaring point. Any efforts to censor online content in the UK can be easily circumvented by anyone using a VPN.

British-based subscribers to a VPN service such as IPVanish or ExpressVPN will be able to get around any blocked sites simply by connecting to a server in another democratic country which hasn’t chosen to block websites with adult content.

As much as Governments try to censor online content, so VPNs will offer continue to offer people access to the free and uncontrolled internet they are legally entitled to enjoy.

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