Porn and the state: when size really does matter

Not content with fighting over Brexit, the government has grabbed the headlines this week with its policy to require pornography websites in the UK to take steps to ensure that only over 18s can access their platforms. This will involve users uploading their passport or credit card details to the websites or going down to their local newsagent to purchase a “PortesCard” in order to access them.

Designed to keep children from viewing material which might not be suitable for them, it appears well-intentioned. However, this is yet another government policy which has a number of troubling implications.

First, like many of the measures designed to protect children, it seriously undermines parental responsibility. Many parents are concerned about what their children view online, but this can be dealt with very easily by having honest conversations with their children about what they are and are not allowed to look at. What’s more, the majority of internet service providers allow parents to block certain websites so that their children cannot view certain material.

It really is that simple. The problem is that the government clearly doesn’t trust parents to keep their children safe online. In the same way, it doesn’t trust parents to make sure that their children eat healthily and get enough exercise – it thinks that parents either don’t know how to keep their children from accessing potentially harmful material, or they just don’t care. This is just another example of the state acting as though it knows more and cares more about children than parents do.

This attempt at nannying extends to adults as well. Although not a stated aim of these new measures, the government would no doubt be pleased if they resulted in fewer people viewing pornography.

The previous Labour government introduced a ban on “extreme pornography” in 2009, and this was extended in 2015. This led to over a thousand prosecutions each year and, as pointed out by Nick Cowen for the Adam Smith Institute, posed a specific risk of prosecution to sexual minorities such as LGBTQ+ individuals. This is despite the fact that the material characterised as “extreme” involved consensual acts between adults and did not result in anybody being harmed.

Many people view the making, distribution, and viewing of pornography as wrong for numerous reasons. But it has been a long-established liberal principle that what consenting adults get up to in the privacy of their own homes is nobody else’s – including the state’s – business.

It also has huge legal implications. What looks set to happen is that members of the public will have to provide their personal information to a company which will then not only know that the person watches pornography, but also the specific type. Given that some firms have a woeful track record of protecting customer data, this could risk getting into the wrong hands. For example, criminals may decide to blackmail users by threatening to reveal that they have viewed pornography. Or, the data, no matter how encrypted it is, may just be leaked, thereby revealing the private viewing habits of millions of people.

This could lead to public humiliation, family breakdown, a loss of employment, ostracisation from social groups, and even suicide. Again, it will be LGBTQ+ people who will be most at risk from this. They may not have chosen to reveal their sexuality to others, only to find out that the whole world now knows. Although the country is now a much more tolerant and accepting place, that’s still not the case everywhere in the UK – and it could even result in some people facing violence.

Of course, a person could get past this by simply going down to their local newsagent. However, place yourself in that person’s shoes. Imagine just how embarrassing it would be: “Hello. I’ll take this newspaper, the pint of milk, 20 Lambert and Butler, and… er… one of those 18-plus internet passes.” Not only would that person be humiliated, but they’d also have to show their ID. The risk of blackmail would, therefore, remain.

These passes will not be free either, with people having to pay £4.99. This may be loose change for some, but as with many government bans and taxes, the poor will be hit hardest. So, this is just another example of the government increasing the cost of living in the UK. Whether it is taxes levied on alcohol, cigarettes, and sugary drinks, or the planning system which restricts housing supply, government action means that people have less money in their pocket.

Now, it might come as a surprise that the largest pornography sites are in favour of the government’s plans – but it shouldn’t really surprise anybody. They know that perhaps people will feel more comfortable sharing their personal details with more established companies than with new ones or ones which cater to specific tastes. Government regulations always favour incumbents, as they stop new entrants to the market. Essentially this is “big porn” using the government to boost its profits – it’s a textbook example of crony capitalism.

It is obviously right that children should be protected from viewing material which might not be suitable for them to see. However, this should be the responsibility of parents, not the state. The government’s decision not only eclipses parental responsibility, but also represents an unacceptable infringement on the rights of its citizens. It increases the risk of people – especially those from minority backgrounds – being harmed, increases the cost of living, and encourages monopolies.

There is one instance in which size does matter, and that is the size of the state. Ours is growing far too big.

Written by Ben Ramanauskas

Ben Ramanauskas is a research economist at Oxford University.