New Laws Are Having an Effect on the Online Experience of Millions of People
Behind the door of the service station, sandwiched between the coffee machine and racks of 10W40 oil, there is a magazine stand. In piles at the base are the daily newspapers, proclaiming the latest in the Brexit fiasco, royal babies, and, it’s safe to say, news of some terrorist outrage or natural disaster on the far side of the world. Above these are special interest magazines for teenage girls, pop music fans, and music aficionados. Cast your eyes to the top shelf, and you’ll see an array of grey, plastic envelopes. This is the realm of the pornographic magazine. And strange as it may be in these days of tube sites, in Britain, porn mags are still a thing.
You might have to stand on your tiptoes to reach them – or worse, you may even need to enlist the aid of the South Asian shop assistant, who will bring his three-step ladder across the busy service station floor, in full view of other customers, to help you retrieve your specialist material. And then it’s back into the queue.To show your proof of age, and hurry out of the shop – the latest issue of Escort stuffed up inside your trench coat.
It’s a shameful experience, and one that we, in Britain, thought we had left firmly behind at the end of the 20th century, along with dreams of empire, a manufacturing industry, and a brief but bizarre fling with microwave cooking.
Internet porn has been a boon to shy teenagers since before the world wide web was even a thing. Dial up BBS systems gave way to IRC, then eventually to web pages, and the free tube sites from which we all benefit today. Pornhub.com – easily the most popular site for the discerning connoisseur, serves up more than 12,700,000 gigabytes per day, which is, according to Pornhub, more bandwidth than the entire internet consumed back in 2002.
It’s 2019, and the only people who visit the corner shop or the local garage to get their fleshy fix are either long distance lorry drivers or old timers who haven’t quite figured out that this whole modern internet thing yet.
In plans put forward by the UK government and passed into law in 2017, Brits wanting to see other people’s naughty bits online would have needed to prove that they are not children. One way of doing this would have bene to have users input their credit card details into a porn site. This is something that most people would be reluctant to do, for obvious reasons.
The other option would have been to visit a the corner shop, and stand, shamefaced in the queue, your face recorded on the omnipresent CCTV system, and purchase a one-time porn pass from across the counter, in full view of your gran, who just popped down for a pot of yogurt.
It’s not quite as bad as snatching one of the grey packets from the top shelf, but it’s pretty close, and like hiding naughty mags in plain packaging, it’s all aid of protecting young eyes from the perils and temptations of naked flesh.
The age checks were originally due to start in July 2019, but technical issues saw the blocks pushed ever further backwards, before they were cancelled altogether in October.
But that’s not to say that the prospect of a porn license is gone for good. It was passed into law as part of the digital economy act. The government has simply chosen not to enforce it. Yet.
It’s not about the children…
It’s completely understandable that the UK government wants to protect children. That’s what the police are for. It’s why every local authority has a social services department, why teachers go through safeguarding training, and why hairdressers are being taught to spot signs of abuse.
For now, we’ll ignore the fact that the incoming system will be laughably easy to outwit, and focus on the fact that the UK government fought long and hard for the right to record, monitor and store the internet usage data of every single person and machine within national borders.
The Investigatory Powers Bill was submitted to parliament in 2015. Among other terrifying measures, it required ISPs to log everything that passed through their servers. What websites users visited, what they did there, how they interacted. Everything.
Every law enforcement agency and military branch could access the basic data without a warrant. A few other bodies, such as the Department for Work and Pensions, the National Health Service, the Food Standards Agency, and, for some unknowable reason, the Welsh Ambulance, could also snoop.
It’s alright, Our politicians told us. It’s for your own protection, and besides, the watch manager at your local fire station won’t be able to see the really juicy stuff without a warrant.
While an extraordinary array of people could, without a valid reason, casually observe how often and how long their brothers-in-law spent on Spankbang, they wouldn’t be able to tell which particular lesbian dwarf facesitting video they had been watching, without a reasonable degree of certainty that a crime was being committed.
The lesbian dwarf facesitting video we mentioned? That’s a crime right there. Lesbian dwarves are fine. It’s the facesitting that Her Majesty’s Government has a problem with. It’s dangerous, they say. People can die from it, they tell us. Creating pornography which might result in somebody mimicking dangerous activities is irresponsible. And now, it’s illegal, too. Ministers spake from on high as they enacted the The Audiovisual Media Services Regulations 2014.
There now exists a list of 13 activities which British porn producers, both amateur and professional, are forbidden to depict in their movies. In addition to the facesitting, these include water sports, spanking, female ejaculation, and verbal abuse. All are verboten.
Talk dirty while you smack my ass? Not in the UK, Love. The Food Standards Agency might find out.
The Investigatory Powers Bill was was granted Royal Assent, and became law in November 2016, but was successfully challenged after being found incompatible with European law by the Court of Justice of the European Union.
The United Kingdom will (probably) be exiting the European Union in the next few months, and what the CJEU says won’t matter..
Despite protests, the prohibition on depictions of light bondage and fisting, enacted by the AVMSR, have never been successfully challenged.
For the people of the EU, the internet is shrinking
The UK’s restrictions are more draconian than most, but across the European Union, changes have been creeping in, which fundamentally alter internet users’ experience of the web.
Already, many US news sites are difficult to access on this side of the Atlantic. The EU’s General Public Data Regulation makes site owners and operators responsible for the personal data of their users. Visitors need to be informed that sites are tracking them, and consent to cookies. Most sites don’t bother, putting them in the way of possible future legal action by EU lawyers. Others, such as the Washington Post, detect when a connection is made from the Europe, and display a short form which users need to check before they can proceed.
Many, including The Chicago Tribune, have chosen not to bother, going dark to most of Europe immediately after the GDPR came into effect almost a year ago, in May 2018, and remaining so ever since.
The EU Copyright Directive passed into law last month, and among other things, makes hosting platforms liable for copyright breaches. Where companies now use DMCA takedown notices to alert sites of copyrighted material being used without permission, thanks to Article 13 of the new law, YouTube or Facebook can be sued directly for hosting the soundtrack to whatever the latest Avengers movie is. The safe harbour doctrine, which applied almost universally, and which protected service providers from liability because of the infringing actions of their users, is gone. At least in Europe.
For end users, this will most likely mean that there will be a different version of YouTube available in the EU, and a different Facebook. The platforms will have significantly less content, as each upload will need to be individually checked to ensure that the web giants can’t be sued for hosting it. The ability to upload content will be hampered for the same reason.
Memes will survive, as “the use of existing works for purposes of quotation, criticism, review, caricature as well as parody are explicitly allowed.”
Nonetheless, vetting each meme and making a judgement on whether it is legal as a parody or caricature will prove onerous for many platforms, and it’s possible that image hosting services such as imgur.com and Gfycat may follow the route of the Chicago Tribune when faced with inconvenient and difficult regulation – they could block EU access altogether.
But while Article 13 made headlines, Article 11 will have a larger impact on what we EU citizens see online, as it requires search engines and news aggregators to pay news websites for using snippets of their content. It sounds fair on the surface – news outlets have been falling in a death spiral for decades, thanks to the rise of Google and Facebook, where all the news you could ever want is in one place.
But what if the tech giants don’t want to pay?
Currently a search made in the UK for “Tiananmen square,” brings up a Wikipedia article on the 1989 protests, plus headlines and snippets about the incident from The Guardian, BBC, CNN and other news organisations. If the rates are set too high, it’s entirely possible that the same search carried out this time next year will yield nothing beyond the basic URL.
The end of social media
There are only so many restrictions a tech company can work with. Facing a barrage of legislation directed straight at it, even a behemoth such as Facebook might decide to pull out of certain markets rather than face the wrath of the regulators yet again.
Copyright issues aside, there are currently plans afoot in the UK to make social media giants legally responsible for more types of content on the platform.
Molly Russell, a 14 year old schoolgirl, killed herself after accessing “disturbing content” on Instagram. It’s certainly tragic, but the fact that she was able to access distressing material on depression and suicide from her phone is being used as yet another club with which to beat tech companies.
The Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, has called for an independent digital ombudsman to ensure that the companies protect young children and speed up the removal of disturbing material. And the Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said that the Government is developing a white paper addressing “online harms.” There will be more regulation and penalties, and more… censorship.
We’ve finally used the word we’ve been avoiding for the last 1,500 words, but there’s no other way of self-censoring to avoid it. Every new European regulation relating to the internet which has been enacted in the last five years, is designed to limit freedom of expression, and to control what we, in Europe, can and cannot see online. What we can or cannot post online. And to make sure that there is enough evidence stored for prosecution if we breach that invisible wall.
All of these regulations and restrictions are easy to bypass. The Opera browser has built-in Virtual Private Network functionality. With two clicks, a European user can appear to be physically located in the US, or Brazil, or Australia. The only connection snoopers can detect will be to Opera’s VPN server. Likewise, sites closed off by geographical restrictions are once again easy to see. Other VPN services are available.
But VPNs are a second rate option. They’re not especially fast, there are often bandwidth limitations, and you, the user, are pushing all your data through someone else’s machine. Do you trust them?
Using a Virtual Private Network is legal in the UK, but in a country where all network communications are monitored and retained as standard, it’s certainly suspicious, and it’s not at all unreasonable to think that whoever occupies the front bench might draft a new set of regulations specifically to deal with people who use VPNs to flout the law.
The internet is getting smaller over here. There is less of it available to us, and what is left over is monitored by almost any low rank official who has a passing interest in what you’re doing online.
It’s a grim picture and it’s only likely to get worse. But hey, at least the children are safe