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Not content with forcing ISPs to store the browsing history of UK citizens (as enshrined into law via the Investigatory Powers Act), the Government now appears to be ignoring the concept of net neutrality with its latest Bill entering the House of Lords. The Digital Economy Bill, due its second reading in the Lords today (13th December 2016), compels websites carrying material which “it is reasonable to assume from its nature that any classification certificate issued in respect of a video work including it would be an R18 certificate” to carry out age verification checks to try and stop youngsters accessing such material. If the sites don’t do this, ISPs will be required to block them. Yet EU net neutrality rules state that all Internet traffic must be treated equally and goes so far as to say that Governments cannot block access to sites that are legal – even if they are distasteful.

A slippery slope?

Of course we applaud the notion of protecting children from potentially damaging content (how could anyone not?), but we’re concerned about what will happen when age verification doesn’t work. As we’ve mentioned in our previous posts on the subject, requiring age verification is all well and good, except that there will be no way to actually know whether the person doing the verifying actually is the age they say they are. Unlike a minor trying to gain access to the cinema to see a film that they’re not of age to see, there won’t be a gatekeeper to check ID and confirm that the viewer isn’t lying. So what’s next? A blanket blocking of certain kinds of sites rather than individual ones? We foresee a slippery slope whereby simple age verification to access adult content becomes the government starting to dictate what we can and can’t look at on the web based on what they deem ‘appropriate’. There has already been some slippage from the Bill’s original measures – in the very late stages of debate within the Commons, MPs added a clause that will allow the blocking of anything from being made available online in the UK that wouldn’t be allowed on a commercially-available DVD. The BBFC’s guidelines for an 18 classification include “where material or treatment appears to us [our emphasis] to risk harm to individuals or, through their behaviour, to society.” State censorship beckons…

Lack of industry engagement

To date the Government has not engaged with the comms industry or ISPs in any meaningful way on the measures that they’re pushing through. Nobody has asked if it’s even physically possible or realistic to do what they want us to do, leaving the door wide open for big problems ahead.

Nor are the demands being placed on ISPs reasonable. Much of the onus (and cost) of policing, enforcing and managing website blocking is likely to fall on ISPs. Unlike the Investigatory Powers Act (“Snooper’s Charter”) there are no cost recovery provisions for ISPs. While there have been calls from the industry for the Government to proceed with care and caution, Theresa May et al now seem determined to push the Bill through (this is hardly a surprise – it’s been kicking around since 2010). When it becomes law and the regulator starts to press for sites to be blocked, ISPs will be expected to execute and manage the whole business. This won’t be easy and will take up time and resources, adding to costs. Ultimately, those costs will be passed on to the consumer, which nobody – ourselves included – wants.

Nothing to hide, nothing to fear?

Lest you feel we are being overly dramatic about the potential for censorship, here’s some wording in the bill to consider:

23 (3) “The steps that may be specified or arrangements that may be put in place [when an ISP is given notice by the regulator] include steps or arrangements that will or may also have the effect of preventing persons in the United Kingdom from being able to access material other than [our emphasis] the offending material using the service provided by the internet service provider“.

Have your say!

Have you been following the progression of the Digital Economy Bill through Parliament? Do you think it’s necessary for both the protection of the public and the development of our industry, or are there better ways to achieve the Government’s aims? Are there other elements of the Bill that you think our industry should be more worried about? Whatever your view, share it with us by leaving a comment below.

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