Another day, another database, another threat to privacy

Databases containing personal details are honey-pots for hackers, with the potential for sensitive information to end up in the hands of criminals or in the public domain. Hot on the heels of the Investigatory Powers Act, which now requires your internet service provider to store your web history (Internet Connection Records) for 12 months, the Government now wants to create more databases containing highly sensitive personal information.

Liberal Democrats did everything we could to stop the worst attacks on individual liberty and privacy in the Investigatory Powers Bill but with Labour support and little help from the media, every significant measure passed into law. No doubt emboldened by the absence of an effective Official Opposition, the Digital Economy Bill brought forward by Government has the potential to create massive databases containing the details of every adult in the UK who, quite lawfully, wants to access adult material on the Internet.

We do not have to imagine how sensitive this kind of personal data is, as there have already been examples of the personal details of those who pay for access to porn sites being traded on the dark web. Details of over 400 million customers of two porn sites have been stolen since July last year. In the case of the website, Ashley Madison, the release of personal information reportedly led to two suicides.

The problem arises over the Government’s legal requirement in the Digital Economy Bill for operators of porn websites to have age-verification, to prevent access to those under 18. There are all sorts of problems with this superficial and mechanistic approach. Age-verification restricted to the UK is very easy to get around and does not address user-generated pornography or pornography posted on twitter or tumblr. Of course we all want to stop children looking at stuff that isn’t appropriate for their age, but the Government must accept the reality of the situation. This material will always exist so the Government should instead concentrate its efforts on teaching even very young children what they should do if they come across adult material and making sex and healthy relationship education compulsory in all schools.

The big privacy issue, however, is that the Government are not placing any conditions on age-verification systems in order to protect the users. Many of the most popular sites are free to access but many of the age verification systems currently in use are operated by the porn sites themselves and work on the basis of providing credit card details. Apart from the potential for porn websites to target you with embarrassing and unwanted advertising once they know your details, the potential value to criminals of lists of people who are accessing pornography, and their credit card details, is obvious. In addition, just like Internet Connect Records, this has the potential to put people off looking at sites on the Internet that they are perfectly entitled to access. The UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the rights to freedom of opinion and expression raised the same concern: “the imposition of the age-verification mechanism…has implications for the right to privacy without imposing conditions for the storage of such data.” Even the cross-party House of Lords Constitution Committee agrees that better safeguards should be included in the Bill. Liberal Democrats have tabled an amendment which would require any system to guarantee the anonymity of the user and we will continue to press our amendment to ensure everything is done to protect the privacy of age-verification users and to give them a choice as to which company they trust with their personal data.

Yet again, the Government is introducing legislation that is not thought through, that is likely to be ineffective and has significant unintended consequences for our civil liberties. Yet again, it is the Liberal Democrats who are providing the real opposition.

* Brian Paddick Is Liberal Democrat spokesperson on Home Affairs. He was Deputy Assistant Commissioner in London's Metropolitan Police Service until 2007, the Lib Dem candidate for the London mayoral election in 2008 and 2012, and a life peer since 2013. He is joint President of LGBT+ Lib Dems.

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9 Comments

  • Some predicted consequences of this law:

    1) It will become easier for disaffected teenagers to visit extremist sites without being noticed because so many of their peers will already be using software to hide their porn-seeking activities.

    2) As with 1), it may well become easier for child-pornographers to hide their activities.

    3) Flash-drives containing large quantities of porn will be passed around schools.

    4) The Opera browser which provides a free (advertiser supported) one-click VPN will become more popular.

    5) If the law goes as far as restricting credit card payments, the uncontrolled unregulated free sites like Pornhub will be less affected than the paid sites, which at least have to put their names on their products.

    6) If the law goes as far as restricting VPN’s, there will be even more financial cybercrime.

    7) Some people who actually sign up for age verification will have their details leaked.

    8) People using some of the many unregulated VPN’s will have their details stolen by those VPN’s.

    9) Non-conventional British pornographers will be forced out of business. This will include, for example, Pandora Blake, who is always fastidious and explicit about consent, unlike the big free sites.

    10) Some people may find out that “taking back control” really meant “giving control back” to (British) authoritarians.

  • Well I suppose because the Conservative party and May as it’s leader, is hell bent on leaving the EU, she won’t be wasting any time bringing the Investigatory Powers Act into line with EU law. Which means she is free to further undermine post-Brexit trade in IT and data hosting services…

  • I agree that the “age verification” requirements are stupid, but that of course misses the point. This is about being seen to be “doing something” about children accessing porn to appease the Daily Mail crowd.

    The fact that it will be either easily bypassed, or dangerous to anyone not smart enough to bypass it, is a secondary issue.

    It would be more productive to invest in better sex and relationship education in schools, and (shock!) better parental guidance. But that’s more difficult than than a bit of ineffective gesture politics.

  • “he uncontrolled unregulated free sites like Pornhub will be less affected than the paid sites, which at least have to put their names on their products.”

    Brian has proposed bringing these under Government regulation as well – though he has recognised that the approach in his amendment was flawed. He also deserves a lot of credit for the support and work on ensuring that the ability in the act to restrict even sites which did have age verification.

    But more generally I’ve not been impressed by the Lib Dem approach on Part 3. First is a focus on legal pornography absent any discussion about (a) what that means and (b) the party policy on what should be legal. The bill uses R18 certification as the benchmark of legality but there is a significant raft of material which falls outside of the R18 classification but isn’t illegal in terms of the Obscene Publications Act or CPS charging practice. I’ve not seen any Lib Dem peer articulating the views of the late Charles Kennedy:
    “However, Liberal Democrats firmly believe that matters of taste have no role in censorship. In holding this policy, we are not condoning sexually explicit or violent material. We are stating the principle that people should be able to make their own judgments about what they say, read or see, without interference from the State, unless there will be real harm to others. As a Christian, I do not condone sexually explicit material. As a Liberal, I respect other people’s freedom to make their own choices.”

    Second is quite a divide within the Parliamentary party in the Lords with Baroness Benjamin taking a much more restrictive view than leading spokespeople.

    Putting the Age Verification register into a more secure, private environment is a small improvement but still leaves this as a part Bill (or at least part of a bill). Lib Dem peers should be careful that they don’t win a minor battle in the course of losing a war.

  • @”solip1″ (and others who use the same line of reasoning)
    It’s quite possible that all ten of the things you mention would happen to some degree. But that’s kind of missing the point, which is that there might still be a big net benefit if overall consumption of hard-core pornography by minors can be reduced. With around half of pre-pubescent porn surfing done by accident or by kids searching on their own, things like this have the potential to make a significant difference.

    Whenever these debates pop up, the same fallacy is always wheeled out: if a system is not effective 100% of the time, it’s no good! We don’t apply the same logic to seat belts in cars. They can’t save lives in all accidents but that’s not a reason to give up on them or stop using other methods like education.

    There is much in this article about protecting adult (male) porn users from embarrassment, but not nearly so much about protecting vulnerable young people. I think that’s the wrong priority.

    I agree with the Charles Kennedy quote about people having the right to watch this stuff. I’ve said many times, as a Labour voter, that I genuinely consider the legalisation of hardcore porn to be one of the Blair government’s more admirable achievements. But come on guys – as adults, we ought to be able to come up with a way of regulating the market for this stuff that makes it much trickier for kids to see it. Perhaps it’s we who need the “education”, instead of putting the onus on children to learn how to cope with it?

    An age verification system, while deeply imperfect, might help a large number of kids, while doing literally nothing to curtail our right as adults to watch porn.

  • “With around half of pre-pubescent porn surfing done by accident or by kids searching on their own”

    You conflate two things there though – if someone is actively seeking something out they are much more likely to find ways of circumventing any age verification.

    “An age verification system, while deeply imperfect, might help a large number of kids, while doing literally nothing to curtail our right as adults to watch porn.”

    Depends how the bill is drafted. As it stands (though the government have said they will bring forward amendments) it does just that.

  • grahame lamb 8th Feb '17 - 8:41am

    This isn’t about technicalities. It’s about standing up and saying fearlessly loud and clear that pornography of any kind is about the exploitation of vulnerable people. It is disgusting. It must have no place in a liberal democracy. Is there any one person reading this website would not want to champion that?

  • @Stuart: I grew up at a time when something was “pornographic” if pubic hair was visible. Was that really worth protecting me from? Until marriage perhaps?

    You don’t mention parent controls. I think those are absolutely essential to prevent “pre-pubescent porn surfing done by accident”.

    The proposed age verification system will literally curtail our rights as adults to watch the output of Pandora Blake as it will force her out of business.

    @grahame lamb: I don’t believe for a moment that Ms Blake, or anybody associated with her site, is “vulnerable” or “exploited”.

    I do believe that there is exploitation in porngraphy. Driving it underground or doing anything which will have the effect of helping the “uncontrolled unregulated free sites like Pornhub” will only increase the likelihood of exploitation.

    I don’t like the present free availability of huge amounts of porngraphy. Indeed, I too am disgusted by quite a lot of it. However I think the present bill will take us further along the path of putting the internet entirely into the hands of big amoral corporations (not least Mindgeek). That will make possible much worse abridgements of our liberty.

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