UK flag and Big Ben representing parliament
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On July 15, 2019, the UK government will enforce an age-verification requirement for online pornography websites. Websites that don’t comply with the UK’s rules will be blocked in the country. Here’s how this online censorship system will work.

Update: The porn block has been delayed by six months.

Second Update: The porn block is now dead.

Surprised? Britons Shouldn’t Be

Many people seem surprised by this news. In fact, a recent YouGov poll found that 76% of Britons didn’t know a “porn block” was in the works.

Despite the surprise of some, this plan has been slowly forming for years. The Conservative party promised to introduce age verification for online pornography back in 2015 if it formed the government and subsequently won the election. The age verification plan became legislation several years ago in the Digital Economy Act 2017. It was initially supposed to go live back in 2018 but has seen several delays. Now, the government has scheduled the introduction for July 15, 2019.

This only affects you if you’re in the UK—or if you run a pornography website.

Pornography Websites Will Want Your ID

UK passport with laptop and smartphone
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Under this system, pornography websites must verify the age of the people who access them. The person must be at least 18 years of age. This requirement extends to both UK-based and overseas pornography websites. It’s enforced by the British Board of Film Classification.

When we say “verify,” we mean it. There’s no more clicking “Yes, I am 18 or older.” Instead, you will have to upload an ID document like a passport or driver’s license to an age verification service or buy a sort of “porn pass” in a local shop where you’ll have to show ID.

The PortesCard by AgeID will be available for “£4.99 for use on a single device, or £8.99 for use across multiple devices,” providing a way to access pornography websites without actually uploading your ID to a pornography-related online service. Britons can buy it in their local shops.

Yes, You Might Have to Upload Your ID

So, with physical cards available in shops, you might think you don’t necessarily have to upload your ID. You can just show your ID and pay with cash at a local store, right?

Slow down there. There’s no single age verification provider. The BBFC does certify a number of age-verification providers, but it doesn’t recommend any particular one to websites

This means that, while AgeID’s card is available in shops, that card you purchased will only get you access to some pornography websites. Others may use other age-verification providers that require you upload a copy of your ID. And, even after you upload a copy of your ID to one age verification service, you may have to verify your age with a different service when you visit a different website. Some websites may offer a choice of providers, but they don’t have to.

Age-Verification Providers Don’t Have to Be Certified

Age ID logo

If you’re thinking “Wow, this might encourage people to upload a copy of their passport to a shady website”—yeah, that sounds about right.

If you’re considering uploading a photo of your ID to gain access to a website, you might want to ensure you’re uploading your ID to a provider certified by the BBFC. But you can’t always rely on that. There’s no legal requirement that a website uses a certified provider. The certification process is entirely voluntary.

If you’re worried that centralized databases of pornography viewers complete with their real names and passports be a juicy target for hackers—well yeah, that sounds about right, too. The BBFC says its certification process will ensure age-verification providers handle data properly—but it’s voluntary. You’re at the mercy of whatever website you want to visit.

And, let’s be honest, even that certification is cold comfort. We live in a world where companies as big as Marriot and Experian can’t stop every breach. We’d be shocked if all these age-verification providers prove immune.

The Government Will Start Blocking Websites

If an adult website required to implement age verification doesn’t do so, the government can take action to enforce the porn block.

Specifically, the government will tell UK internet service providers to block these websites. It can also ask search engines, social media websites, advertising companies, and payment providers to stop working with non-compliant sites.

Once the plan goes into effect, anyone can report a pornography website on the BBFC’s website if it isn’t verifying ages properly. Websites the UK considers to have “extreme” pornography are also regarded as non-compliant and will be blocked by the web filter after they’re reported.

This puts the UK government in the position of telling ISPs what websites should be blocked in the country. Margot James, the UK’s digital minister, called this a “world first” in a press statement, but it has something in common with China’s great firewall.

Some Porn Websites Are Exempt

Reddit in Chrome on an Android phone
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The UK’s porn block only affects websites that provide pornography on a “commercial basis.” Amateur pornography websites are excluded and won’t have to check anyone’s age—unless they have advertising. If the site has any revenue at all—even a few pennies a month from advertising—it must comply.

However, if your website is 33% or less pornography, you’re exempt. Sites like Reddit and Twitter—which contain a lot of pornography, but also other content—won’t have to enforce the age-verification system. That will be one of many easy ways for minors (or anyone else) to get around this scheme.

VPNs Remain an Escape Hatch

There’s an easy way for anyone to escape this whole age-verification scheme—without uploading your ID or buying a pass in a shop. You can pay for a VPN service and browse as if you were in another country, like the USA. Websites online would see you as not browsing from the UK, so you wouldn’t see any age-verification demands.

It seems like a loophole—and it is. It’s perfectly legal to use a VPN to get around this block. The UK government isn’t interested in messing with VPNs—not right now, at least. The Chinese government blocks VPNs to ensure its citizens can’t get around internet censorship.

If you’re in the UK and want to access adult websites, we recommend choosing a VPN to preserve your privacy.

RELATED: The Best VPNs to Watch Whatever the Hell You Want in the UK

Let’s be honest: This policy is simultaneously oddly strict while being so full of holes it won’t prevent minors from viewing pornography. To achieve its desired effect, the government would have to impose even harsher restrictions on the internet.

Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor in Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for nearly a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than 500 million times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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