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Anti-porn laws in Europe bring serious privacy issues, yet they’re fashionable as ever


While multiple countries outright ban pornographic material, others try to restrict its monetization, production, and distribution channels as much as possible. However, new legislation in Europe opens a broader debate on online privacy and censorship.

In 2017, the UK passed the Digital Economy Act that sought to impose an age verification system on pornographic sites to prevent any user under 18 from being able to access them. After that, other countries in Europe followed suit.

Even though most pornographic sites ask the user to indicate that they are of legal age, such verification is only a request that may or may not be respected, and it is ultimately up to the parents or guardians of the child or adolescent to control the sites they access.

However, the UK law would oblige any British citizen (or anyone accessing a porn website from a UK IP address) to register with verification providers, which would set a dangerous precedent, putting the privacy and security of millions of people's data at risk. 

The pressure from the people and experts, as well as the immense technical difficulties, ultimately led the law, even though approved, to be dropped just before going into effect.

“The problem is not the idea of the [age] verification, [but] the information that will be given up and that's vulnerable to all kinds of leaks. And that's incredibly personal data, which, if leaked to the public domain, would be incredibly damaging,” explains Myles Jackman, British lawyer who specialises in defending cases related to pornography.

Activists noted that, in the UK, not only the personal data of anyone willing to access porn would be available for the authorities, but also, “any and all information that simply concerns an individual’s sex life or orientation,” says Alec Muffett, engineer and internet-security evangelist.

The argument: Protecting teens and children

Now, France and Germany are also discussing laws aimed at restricting access to porn websites based on the discourse of “protecting children and teens,” often promoted by conservative religious groups. But this idea is also commonly shared by all ideological groups, explains Muffett. 

Such an argument is not new. Yet, governments are still trying to make such legislation work, even though it would endanger people's privacy and even their right to access any legal content they want.

“Ten years ago, the [German] government tried internet filtering for child pornography and there were huge protests,” says Markus Beckedahl, member of the Media Council of the Berlin-Brandenburg State Media Authority and member of Netzpolitik, a German platform of digital rights.

“Protecting children and teens is a fundamental right too, so we have to find a balance,” adds Beckedahl. To him, internet filtering shouldn’t even be an option, but porn platforms should do more on their side to prevent unauthorised access by minors.

He also explains that “the big porn platforms do not want to cooperate on the topic of age verification and leave their content freely accessible. However, German law stipulates that children and young people should be protected.”

Blocking and censoring

In Germany, the idea is to impose DNS blocks against major porn streaming websites, but not only are such blockades easily circumvented (with the use of a VPN, for example), but also they’d only target major websites, leaving others unchecked. 

“These attempts will fail. But until then, they will cause massive collateral damage. Tougher measures require full monitoring and complete control of communications, like in China,” explains IT expert Alvar Freude, member of the German parliament's commission on the Internet and digital society.

It is also a debate on the limits of the state to rule over citizens and whether more freedom should be granted. “The state is a particularly poor nanny. I appreciate that parents may not always be capable of taking care of the children, that there will be gaps. But whether the state should be universal is a very difficult question,” says Jackman.

The idea behind such laws is to filter content and force the upload of documents and the handover of sensitive data in order to access porn platforms. 

In Germany, Tobias Schmid, the director of the State Media Authority (LMA) of North Rhine-Westphalia, is trying to piggyback on existing laws regulating porn, such as the Youth Media Protection Act that wasn’t fully enforced, says Beckedahl, “because net filtering was a highly controversial and political topic ten years ago.”

But not anymore, as it seems. Now, says Beckedahl, “the state media authorities try this [new] way and if it comes through, it will be the start of much more filtering, not only of porn.” Jackman agrees, adding that “whether or not they'll be successful, or are simply attempts to curb perceived aspects of 

Meanwhile in France…

In May 2020, the French parliament passed a law (the Loi Avia) that was billed as an online hate speech law but also legislated pornography. And in June, the Parliament agreed to introduce an age verification system for porn websites, again as protection for children and teens, within a broader law on domestic violence.

The Avia law was highly controversial in France because of concerns about its freedom of expression implications. The French Constitutional Court basically struck down the entire law in June. 

The basic idea behind the law was that it would've required certain platforms operating in French territory to take down any ‘manifestly’ illegal speech within 24 hours of a user flagging it, without so much as a court order.

“The speech laws that it covered included hate speech laws, but also some other criminalizations, including a law that bans pornography where it could be seen by a minor,” explains Jacob Schulz, deputy managing editor of the website Lawfare. 

As we can see, anti-porn laws and age verification systems are often introduced into legislation almost as Trojan horses. Schulz says that “the Avia law wasn't itself trying to criminalize pornography. Rather, it was just lumping in pornography into the list of types of ‘manifestly illegal’ content that platforms would've been required to take down after a user report.”

“These measures will not have the desired effect of preventing young people from accessing pornography,” explains Freude, adding that, consequently, “such measures would have to be extended until they are clearly excessive.” 

Moreover, he explains, “access blocking of any kind is not compatible with a free democratic society. In the case of illegal content, other measures are more appropriate: they must be removed at the source.”

Finally, Freud alerts that “access blocking builds up a monitoring and censorship infrastructure that other interest groups also want to use. This can severely restrict freedom of opinion and information and lead to excessive surveillance.” 

About the author: Raphael Tsavkko Garcia is a Brazilian freelance journalist published by Al Jazeera, Foreign Policy, Undark, The Washington Post, among other news outlets. He also holds a PhD in Human Rights from the University of Deusto.

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