The state’s porn ID plans would lead to a credit card fraud boom

 
Sam Dumitriu
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This government doesn’t understand the internet – it should stop trying to regulate it (Source: Getty)

Plans unveiled on Monday would force every adult accessing pornography online to prove their age by handing over their credit card details.

Websites that don’t comply will be singled out by an as yet unappointed regulator and blocked by Internet Service Providers (ISPs). It’s part of a Tory manifesto pledge to make it “as hard for children to access violent and degrading pornography online as it is in the high street”.

Children should be protected online, but this policy will do next to nothing to stop them from stumbling upon hardcore pornography on the internet. Worse still, it will lead to a surge in credit card fraud.

Read more: Draconian porn laws should be whipped into shape, new report argues

One expert advising the government on digital strategy described the policy as “one of the worst proposals I have seen on digital strategy”.

There are obvious privacy issues. Social attitudes may have shifted in recent years, but most adults would prefer not to announce their porn habit to their credit card company. Scammers know this all too well. It’s why adult movies are a gold mine for fraudsters.

Take John L Steele. The US attorney would file bogus claims targeted at adults who had illegally downloaded copyrighted adult movies. He threatened “pirates” with $150,000 fines and a day in court, but said they could get off lightly if they simply transferred $3,000 to his bank account. Embarrassed victims paid up and he was able to extort $6m before he was eventually brought to justice.

Other scams may be less sophisticated. Websites often bundle in free trials when users verify their age, but make it almost impossible to cancel the subscription. Users who wish to keep their private desires private may be unlikely to exercise their full rights under consumer protection laws.

Too many people take a lax attitude to cyber security. The Times’ investigation revealed even many MPs and senior police officials used woefully insecure passwords. The three most common passwords used by members of the police were “police”, “police1”, and “password”.

Experts have warned of the risk of Ashley Madison style hacks. The extramarital affair website, which was hacked last year, stored user data insecurely and led to widespread extortion. The lesson of Ashley Madison should have been to only give sensitive data to companies you trust; the government’s age verification policy encourages adults to hand over their credit card details freely.

This may, of course, be a price worth paying if it stopped children from stumbling across explicit images. But it simply won’t work.

Children are more likely to access pornography on popular social networks like Twitter or Tumblr than on the exclusively adult websites that this policy will target.

ISPs and regulators will be playing whack-a-mole with thousands of foreign adult websites.

There’s an easier, safer way. Parents already have access to the tools to filter adult content. ISPs already filter adult content and require users to opt out.

But no solution is perfect. Savvy teenagers will always find a way, perhaps by pretending to access the site from another country using proxy servers – the same proxy servers they already use to access blocked US content on Netflix and Hulu.

Perhaps a better solution would be to encourage parents to talk responsibly to children about pornography on the internet, and encourage a dialogue about risks and safety practices, rather than getting the state to intervene.

This government, like the one before it, doesn’t understand the internet – it should stop trying to regulate it.

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