The UK Government Risks Facilitating a Porn Monopoly

For a long time, porn sites have asked visitors to tick a box to confirm they’re over the age of 18. Finally cottoning on to the fact that anyone of any age can tick the box, the government’s new Digital Economy Act – due to come into force in the next few weeks – will mean people actually have to prove it. Adult content sites will have to install age verification software, and many smaller sites worry they won’t be able to afford it. The move risks pricing independent sex workers out of the internet – and onto the street – leaving a monopoly online of the bigger websites who can bear the cost.

The government will not be providing the age verification software itself. Instead the responsibility has fallen on MindGeek, the parent company behind PornHub, the world’s leading free porn site. In creating this new software, MindGeek have started a new branch of the company, called AgeID.

When users want to watch any content made “principally for the purposes of sexual arousal” (presumably the intention behind most porn site visits), they will be redirected to an AgeID verification page, where they’ll be asked to input their passport, credit card or driver’s licence details. Smaller porn sites will have to pay AgeID for the use of their software, with the price based on each site’s web traffic. This means that, whilst independent producers will likely struggle, the government are giving MindGeek another way to make a profit – and putting them in charge of millions of users’ personal data.

“Shooting themselves in the foot”.

Misha Mayfair, a porn star and escort who has worked in the industry for seven years, expressed concerns that, despite enjoying working for well-known brands like PornHub, the move “is going to feed even more into the monopolisation of the industry”.

For Mayfair the blame lies not with PornHub but with the government and the huge amount of pressure they are putting on small producers. “You now have to have the software – that could cost thousands for all we know – and you now have to keep people’s data safe,” she said, referencing the fact that if smaller sites fail to buy the software, they risk a £250,000 fine or face being shut down. “The government are shooting themselves in the foot, saying that our producers, who contribute to the British economy, won’t be able to compete.” she added.

And with small producers no longer able to work online the implications could be profound. “If you have your face out there as a sex worker, it’s incredibly hard for you to get employed elsewhere,” Mayfair explained, “people are going to be forced to make decisions that they wouldn’t have wanted to previously”. This means working face to face with clients, or on the street.

Sex work historian Kate Lister flagged the importance of the internet in ensuring sex workers’ welfare, explaining that “working online is how you screen your clients, it’s how you get your business, it’s how you promote your brand, it’s how you stay safe”. If these sites struggle to stay profitable, the danger is that more sex workers will be forced to forego these security measures, left with no choice but to work on the street, handing more money to third party pimps, and working in less safe conditions.

“It’s not practical”.

And there are implications for consumers, too. “Without safe ethical porn where adults are working with consent, we are left with sites that promote a warped sense of how we should feel sexual gratification”, explained Gemima Hull, a writer and director whose work has explored online sex. “Smaller porn sites are beginning to explore what pleasure and desire are, and what porn can be, or what it should be”. But the sites where sex workers have the autonomy to make this sort of porn, are the ones at risk of closure. The move could also marginalise sexual preferences that aren’t catered for by mainstream porn sites, including a lot of feminist, queer or trans porn, which tends to exist on smaller domains with a greater risk of financial uncertainty.  

One answer would be for the government to provide the software for free, but Mayfair offers another solution: “I think the remedy is to just educate children about sex and pornography, and for parents to monitor their children online.” These measures would dodge the worrying situation we are about to find ourselves in: an ever centralised monopoly within the porn industry and independent sex workers priced out of their living. Mayfair’s last word on the legislation is clear: “it’s not practical, and they’re not helping anyone.”

Published 13th April 2019

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