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Slow Views

Tech companies could limit children’s access to porn. It’s high time they did

Wednesday 25 August 2021

Rachel de Souza, the Children’s Commissioner, and the child advocate, Beeban Kidron, are amongst those leading the demand for action


Warning: this article refers to instances of serious sexual abuse.

It is estimated that, during the pandemic, 50 per cent of adult males in this country have used Pornhub, a site that requires no registration and imposes no restriction to access. In contrast, there is no official data on the numbers of children using this particular site – but the Children’s Commissioner Rachel de Souza, and her policy advisor Simone Vibert, have gathered sufficient evidence to suggest that half of 11 to 13-year-olds have seen pornography online and that the majority have social media accounts (with all that implies). While children are prohibited from gambling or buying alcohol, a quite different, effectively libertarian approach has governed their access to pornography. 

De Souza reckons, charitably, that this mostly reflects ignorance on the part of legislators – but she is distinctly unimpressed by the attitude and approach of the social media companies. The adult sites claim that they would embrace age verification (though this does not stop them from featuring young people in their content – “teenagers” being, depressingly enough, the most popular search term on Pornhub, according to Vibert). 

Remarkably – some would say implausibly – all the technology developers and advisors at big tech platforms (a number of them directly recruited from Westminster) claim to have been confounded by the age verification puzzle: a question raised by – and parked in – the Digital Economy Act of 2017. 

Since then, privacy campaigners have continued to argue that meaningful age verification would create a database of pornography users that could be a target for blackmailers. An initial compromise was reached for a voluntary certification system, relying on supposedly “informed use” by consumers (whatever that might mean for young people). But even this minimal hurdle was scrapped by the Department of Culture as part of its consultations for the draft Online Safety Bill.

While this bill talks in general terms about making digital life safer for children, it is not specific about age verification for pornography. Ofcom can recommend that sites use verification technology, but lacks the authority to compel them to do so. Moreover, commercial porn sites that do not carry user-generated content are outside the scope of the bill: a significant exclusion.

Regrettably, the battle has been framed as one between privacy for adults and protection for children – and this particular government is anxious not to appear preachy. One Whitehall official looking into the issue was even asked to check what the “red wall” view was on pornography. 

Yet, as de Souza observes, this should be a generational issue for decision makers, rather than a matter of narrow party political calculation. “The digital sphere has been part of our lives for the past 20 years but we didn’t grow up with it,” she says. “We don’t know what it’s like for children.” 

Part of the problem is that those same legislators may have a hopelessly outdated view of pornography. The child advocate, Beeban Kidron, who has a private member’s bill outlining a digital code of conduct, suspects this is the case.

“Older people, including some decision makers, have a romantic view of pornography as a ‘top shelf of the newsagent kind’ of thing. But this is not ‘big titted Rosie’ – this is choking, bestiality, sex with grannies, sexual violence. And the average age of people reading this is 12.”  

What surprised me about Pornhub, apart from the sheer accessibility of the platform, was the prevalence of sexualised family relationships. Step-mothers and step-fathers and step-siblings often featured. Step-mothers would enter the rooms of those for whom they had taken on moral and pastoral care, dressed in bondage gear. Particularly disturbing was the casting of men past middle age and teenage girls, or girls described as teenage.

Anal sex is commonplace – as are scenes of young women performing oral sex on groups of stony faced men. Bear in mind: these sequences – gang rape by another name – are being watched by 12 and 13 year olds, as their introduction to sexual relationships.

The real-life consequences are already becoming apparent. Kidron says that GPs are reporting teenage patients with rectal tears, and boys suffering from erectile dysfunction because they cannot cope with conventional relationships that do not resemble the brutal world of hard-core pornography. 

Schools are also facing the consequences of unrestricted, industrial scale online pornography. De Souza, who is a former head teacher, says: “I have had experience of it myself, and many head teachers say the same thing. This is the one thing they would like us to get rid of.”

The shocking testimonies gathered on the Everyone’s Invited website, which exposed the prevalence of “rape culture” within schools, confirmed teachers’ worst fears. De Souza has been contributing to the drafting of a good relationship sex education curriculum, but makes the point that social education does not end at the school gates. Increasingly, social media is where children converse with friends; it is their window onto the world.

The child protection charity that Kidron chairs, 5Rights Foundation, has created proxy child profiles online to see where they were led. The fake avatars were quickly exposed to anonymous adults sharing sexual content with them. Tellingly, the proxy profiles were also fed with targeted advertising for age-specific products such as toys, or for education. But – crucially – they were also offered sexual images, or self-harming sites. 

Kidron identifies the key question: if the algorithms that govern social media sites are sufficiently sensitive to direct advertising of this sort to young users, why, then, can’t they apply age-detection to content? Though the big sites such as Facebook prohibit pornographic content in their terms and conditions, WhatsApp (owned by Facebook) frequently offers an easy back door route to such material. Kidron is horrified by the viral images being passed around by school age children. She mentions one video she has seen – a bestial act performed on a toddler – which was intercepted at a primary school.

What, she asks, will be the consequences for a generation of children exposed to these kinds of images, adding: “We are putting all this into the hands of children – there are no barriers. I just go ‘wrong’. Call me old fashioned. This is nothing to do with a healthy interest in sex. What is appearing on the Instagram feeds of young people is misogyny and sexual violence. And we are allowing a market to grow for it. You see older girls pretending to be younger – an industrial scale of commercial exploitation.”

A Tortoise investigation

#PornPlanet

Online pornography is watched by billions of people. But how much do we actually know about the porn industry – and the protections in place to prevent abuse?

In May we published our first investigation into the online porn industry. In Hunt for the Porn King we tracked down Bernd Bergmair, the majority owner behind Pornhub’s parent company Mindgeek who, until then, had managed to stay in the shadows.

In the second episode, the Porn Headmaster, we investigated porn producers. Thanks to the internet, anyone with a camera can make and sell porn. But it’s an industry that’s perilously unregulated, offering little protection for those involved.

Flora Gill, the journalist daughter of Amber Rudd, recently suggested that we need “age appropriate” pornography so that young people are not subjected to hard core. Inevitably, Gill was subjected to heavy social media attack; but she may be onto something. Kidron replies wearily that we could define “age appropriate porn” as what actually happens in real life relationships rich with pleasure and affection – rather than the violent fantasies that infest the Internet. 

De Souza says that the children she speaks to are confused and miserable about what they are seeing online and that girls as young as ten tell her about people masquerading as their friends to initiate sexual conversations.

As a preliminary step, she believes that parents need to be educated on what their children are actually seeing online – and that, in this respect, the disclosures on Everyone’s Invited were a shocking wake-up call .“If girls are being asked 11 times a night to send their naked picture, if boys are seeing things they wished that they had never seen, then it is time to do something now to protect boys and girls.”

Research has shown that over half of boys and four out of ten girls think that pornography is “realistic”. Further studies have shown that viewing pornography in adolescence has an impact upon subsequent behaviour, increasing the likelihood of aggression and coercive conduct. An Ofsted review of sexual abuse in schools highlighted the role of online content, including pornographic sites, in nurturing such cases. 

De Souza is convening a group of 16 to 21-year-olds to advise parents on the digital landscape that they themselves have experienced and survived: “This age group is the most keen on age verification. They wish they had had it. Instead, you are warping views of what healthy relationships are. Boys thinking that is what they should be asking for and girls thinking that is what they should be doing.”

Until now, the case for adult privacy has prevailed over the argument that children need to be better protected. But this is, in fact, a false dichotomy. Neither the Children’s Commissioner nor Kidron are interested in what adults watch. Indeed, their hunch is that commercial factors are lurking behind the so-called “privacy” argument – companies simply do not want to introduce any sort of hurdle that will limit access to their sites. 

Which is not to say that the status quo will necessarily endure. Apple, for instance, has just announced plans to scan phones for child abuse imagery. Indeed, facial recognition technology may be the long-awaited breakthrough that enables effective age verification. If this technology can distinguish the face of a child from an adult – as it surely can – it will be a formidable weapon for those seeking to protect the young. An upstart app called Yoti already offers secure digital ID services, and it is entirely possible that third party platforms that can verify age will spring up – in the same way that PayPal is a trusted go-between for purchasers and sellers. 

Other options being discussed are “digital tokens” that are age sensitive. A straightforward “pornography pay wall” is another idea – although this is predictably unpopular with privacy campaigners. 

The companies in question, it is true, are mostly based in other countries – Pornhub is owned by MindGeek, a privately held Canadian company, with headquarters in Luxembourg, that also owns RedTube and YouPorn. Yet Germany is already working towards national regulation and France is following suit. Canada has appointed a digital commissioner who will be looking at age verification and other protections.

De Souza, for her part, has been asked by Gavin Williamson and Oliver Dowden – respectively, the education and culture secretary – to take a lead role in the government’s strategy “to make the UK the safest place to be a child online.”

Already, she has invited the tech companies to a round table in the coming weeks in search of solutions. If all goes to plan, the Online Safety Bill should lead to a more protected environment for children – though not, on present trends, until 2024.

“As a former head of a school academy,” she says, “you learn the importance of action now. My exhortation to the tech companies and to government ministers who are passionate about this, is: why wait? Let’s do it now.”

The answer might be to fast track legislation this autumn, and to bring in Beeban Kidron’s code of conduct immediately. She fears that if we do not, we will, quite simply, have betrayed a generation of children. 

“What kind of society do we have when children see pornography as a normal outcome of relationships? They say: ‘Why is this stuff on our phones if you don’t want us to see it?’” It is an excellent question – and one that any society with a conscience should regard as a matter of urgency.

Sarah Sands is a journalist and author. Her book, The Interior Silence: 10 Lessons from Monastic Life, is published by Short Books. 


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