UK Porn censorship proposals attacked by UN Free Speech Advocate

The United Nations Free Speech advocate has weighed into the debate about the UK Governments plans to restrict access to online pornography, warning that the proposals could be a breach of human rights laws.

As we reported in November last year,  the UK Government has proposed making changes which force porn sites to verify the age of users in an amendment to the Digital Economy Bill. Furthermore, they are planning to award themselves the power to block any sites which fail to do this.

The proposals, which as we noted previously are based on flawed research and fail to take into account the international nature of online porn, were widely condemned by online freedom campaigners, and many noted that they could be easily circumvented by anyone using a VPN.

Free Speech Representative intervenes

But the new intervention from David Kaye, the UNs Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression is perhaps the most powerful to date. It is also telling that he has proactively written to the UKs Ambassador to the UN to express his concerns.

The crux of his concerns surround the age verification provisions which he suggests “fall short of the standards of international human rights law”. He highlights the fact that the proposals as they stand would allow the Government to keep a record of what each individual was viewing, which could be coupled with other personal data.

If this was concerning enough, he also highlights that provisions including in other parts of Bill would also allow the Government to share this deeply personal information with not only other Government bodies but private sector organisations as well.

He states that ““identity disclosure requirements in the law allow authorities to more easily identify persons, eradicating anonymous expression.” He then goes on to address the cumulative impact of the Digital Economy Bill and the recently passed Investigatory Powers Bill, noting that when taken together, the two new laws would amount to an “a significant tightening control” over internet freedom in the UK.

His concluding remarks about the Digital Economy Bill were about as damning as they could get. “The bill contains insufficient procedures without adequate oversight, overly broad definitions and lack of data-sharing safeguards that unduly interferes with the rights of freedom of expression and privacy.”

Unconvincing response

The response of the UK Government to this powerful intervention has been unconvincing to put it kindly. A spokesperson for the Department for Culture, Media, and Sport, which is the Government department passing the bill, simply claimed that “there is no question of the government collecting data on viewing habits” without offering any further reason as to why the British public should believe them.

They did also try to reassure by saying that they were working with the Information Commissioners Office to try and comply with data protection requirements.

No effort was made to address the point that the new provisions would be in breach of human rights law, which makes it look increasingly likely that the UK Government is primed to pass another piece of legislation which will be dragged through the courts as soon as it makes it onto the statute books.

With the UKs, so-called opposition party, Labour, supporting the Digital Economy Bill, as they did the Investigatory Powers Bill, it seems likely to make it into law sooner or later, although it is about to be scrutinised by the House of Lords, which does have the power to make significant changes if the will is there.

So with online freedom in the UK looking set to take yet another blow, VPN use in the UK is on the rise as users seek to protect themselves from the Governments intrusive and overbearing new laws.

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