Flat White

Big Brother is watching… porn?

7 November 2019

2:30 PM

7 November 2019

2:30 PM

Twenty years ago Australia was labelled as the ‘global village idiot’ by the president of the American Civil Liberties Union for our attempts to censor the internet. It looks like we may be about to take on that mantle again.

Peter Dutton’s Department of Home Affairs has suggested that in an attempt to protect children from seeing sexually explicit material online, we should force adult web sites to introduce facial recognition technology for their users as a form of age verification. In a nutshell, the department suggests that a person wanting to access an adult site would have to send in a copy of their photo ID and then whenever they want to access the site, undergo facial recognition.

Really bad ideas masquerading as online child protection are not new. In 1999 then Liberal communication minister Richard Alston wanted to protect children from the evils of the internet and introduced amendments to the Broadcasting Services Act to ‘ban’ adult material from Australia’s shores. What was legal in an Australian adult magazine or X-rated video would be illegal on the internet. That’s right, illegal on the World Wide Web — well in Australia anyway. This would be done, he said, by prohibiting any Australian internet service providers from hosting websites that featured adult material and running a secret blacklist of all adult sites in the world that hosted said material. This secret list was then shared with filtering companies so that they could block these sites. Of course, the list was leaked and, from memory, some 2,000 banned sites were suddenly promoted to the world’s perverts courtesy of the Australian government. Even then the numbers of adult websites were estimated to be well over a million and today the number is in the millions.

On top of this, they legislated that any sites hosted in Australia that might contain R-rated content must have a robust restricted access system involving prove of age procedures and passwords. These systems had to be approved by the Department

Of course, every website that this regulation might have applied to quietly and quickly relocated to a server outside Australia. This resulted in no websites paying any heed to the law.

When I went to investigate whether there were any approved restricted access systems registered under the broadcasting services Act, I couldn’t find any — although I did keep getting a “page not found error 404” message.

As head of Australia’s adult goods and services association, Eros, at the time, I protested vehemently and suggested that there were far more effective ways to restrict what children saw on the internet.

This was also a time where if you wanted to access 1900 phone services both recorded and live (mainly horoscopes, sex talk and prayers) you had to register your interest with your telco in writing and then your request to access 1900 services would also appear on your phone bill! I think around 36 people (out of hundreds of thousands who were using the services) applied and I reckon I knew them all because all were 1900 phone operators.


In hindsight, this all seems very quaint and the bumbling antics of politicians dealing with a new toy. But the suggestion that government might now legislate facial recognition to check someone’s age before being allowed access to adult websites shows that we have learnt nothing from 1990s farcical attempts to control people’s viewing habits, albeit in the name ‘saving the children’.

I don’t have time to write and you don’t have time to read the avalanche of argument that makes this such a dumb idea but let me make a couple of points.

Many readers will have received threatening emails requesting ransom payments from hackers who have gained access to a list that they are on. The hackers threaten to send their internet viewing history to their husband, their boss, etc. The last time I checked in on this scam I think they were asking for a modest $4k paid in bitcoin. As the 1999 leaking of the list of government banned sites shows, compiling a list of people with photo ID who watch porn would be manna from heaven for these criminals. Naturally, the government cannot guarantee that their privacy will be protected.

The sex industry prides itself on not kissing and telling. Adult sites want your experience to be as memorable and private as possible. Unfortunately, governments don’t. But even then the hacking of the adult dating site Ashley Madison in 2015 caused enormous grief to millions of people who had their sexual privacy invaded. There were a number of suicides over it.

Hacks on databases like those Dutton’s own department are suggesting are now commonplace. Over 30,000 hacks of major databases worldwide have now been recorded. It is estimated that the average cost of a data breach will be over $150 million by 2020, with the global annual cost forecast to be $2.1 trillion. The devastating emotional costs and loss of life from them is incalculable. Already this year, a collection of 2.7 billion identity records, consisting of 774 million unique email addresses and 21 million unique passwords, has been posted on the world wide web for sale.

If Minister Dutton and his super sleuth department were to enact this stupid idea, who would enforce it? Who would ensure that adult websites around the world were implementing these facial recognition requirements? Who would they apply to? And has Mr Dutton investigated any better ways of keeping kids off porn sites?

We have already established that under the Broadcasting Services Act it is illegal for a website providing adult content to be hosted in Australia. So this law could only apply to websites being hosted overseas.

Australians made the eighth highest number of visits to the website PornHub which is somewhat curious given our relatively small population.

Does Dutton believe that he can now compel these Australians visiting PornHub to not only provide a copy of their photo ID and then use the camera on their phone or PC to confirm their face every time they log on?

Another workaround for Dutton’s super sleuth department is that they compel ISPs to monitor their customers’ web viewing — not the picture, of course, just the URL — but wait a minute. They already are compelled to keep this info.

So maybe one way is for the ISPs to send this back once a month so that parents can check whether little Johnny of Jennifer have not gone somewhere they shouldn’t have.

Another point to consider is that this will ultimately be operated by third-party age verification services. PornHub happens to own one of the largest.

Seriously, these are really stupid ideas.

How about we just go back to basics and give parents the tools they need to regulate their children’s online viewing? Parenting and education. Let’s entice our young people to learn about sex and relationships from somewhere other than Hustler.com?

It’s been a long established fact that kids who get good early sex education are more likely to delay the onset of sexual activity and when they do start, they are more likely to do it safely. I also don’t want our kids growing up in a country where their civil liberties and privacy are non-existent – all in the name of protecting them.

Fiona Patten is the Reason Party member for the Northern Metropolitan Region of the Victorian Legislative Council.

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