Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous

The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent

July 29, 2017
3 min read

Earlier this month, digital and culture minister Matt Hancock signed off on regulations laid out in the Digital Economy Act 2017. These will come into effect next April.

You probably read those two sentences and thought: ‘so what?’ Unless you get your news from the tabloids (please say you don’t), you might not know that this has been quite controversial. They have been reporting that all porn sites will be forced to take your credit card details – and while that isn’t exactly true, the reality isn’t far from it.

Pornographic websites in the UK will require age verification under the regulation. As written the regulations sound quite robust, but they seem to imagine that one country can regulate the entire internet.

To be fair to Theresa May, I don’t expect her to have a great grasp of technology herself. It’s also difficult to imagine the PM, a vicar’s daughter, life-long Tory and nearly a pensioner, having quite the same views on what constitutes pornography as the average Brit – after all, we’re talking about a woman who once voted against gay adoption and equalising the age of consent for gay people. The government has yet to release any guidelines on the issue.

Usually harmless social networks like Facebook, Twitter and Reddit can sometimes cross the line into being ‘NSFW’ (not safe for work – ie nudity and other material that more conservative workplaces might consider pornographic). Will Chairman May ban them, in the style of China’s ‘great firewall’? Without any clear definitions, it’s easy to paint a lot of things as ‘indecent’, ‘vulgar’ or ‘unsuitable for children’.

There is also the issue of how the age verification will work. Since the government hasn’t said how they plan to do it (I doubt they have any idea), let’s go with the media’s assumption that it would work by asking for credit card details. Would you really be willing to give your identity and account information to some dodgy website, even if you’re an adult? But at the same time, what’s stopping any 15 year old boy from nicking his mum’s credit card from her purse?

And what if you’re an adult without a credit card? I know the Tories have a reputation for favouring the rich, but are they honestly going to restrict pornography to those with a good credit score?

This Act is meant to protect young people, yet its ideas could be a model for future thought policing. If the Conservatives wanted the UK’s future leaders, thinkers and creators to enjoy diversity of opinion and freedom of information, they would protect net neutrality: the principle that the internet is a neutral carrier and your provider or government shouldn’t block or hinder particular websites.

You might think a law that sounds so impossible to enforce is laughable. I’d agree: I suspect it’s a plot to please some of her more stiff-upper-lipped voters. But don’t laugh too soon.

With this Act, the Conservatives are setting a precedent: the government will protect the public from imaginary online harm by taking away their freedoms. As we saw in the wake of the Manchester and London attacks, May was keen to blame the web for radicalisation. This scaremongering is a perfect setup for further restriction of ideas. How far will the next law go? It depends on much we fight this one.