Should the internet be age restricted?


Enda Kenny thinks we need to talk about pornography, or specifically the "avalanche" of it which is available online.

The Taoiseach's statement has sparked a lot of debate in the media over what — if anything — needs to be done to address the issue, with some commentators suggesting more restrictions need to be put in place to stop children from accessing pornographic content with such ease.

The problem is, such restrictions simply will not work. Last week, the Taoiseach said:

"There is clearly an issue there that needs to be addressed, and it's very hard to address it, given the range and the velocity of the avalanche of communications of all descriptions that are coming at young people now. For older generations, they just can’t reach into the spheres where young minds are being, in some cases, corrupted and tainted, by an avalanche of this kind of material."

Whether you believe there is a problem with pornography online or not, there is little argument that accessing it has never been easier for young people.

The internet is considered by many to be the greatest invention of the last century. It helps spread information and ideas around the world in an instant; helps highlight wrong-doing; and allows disparate parts of the world communicate with a global audience.

Conversely, it also allows trolls to attack people indiscriminately on social media; gives criminals new ways of stealing your money; and, thanks to its open nature, places little restriction on what information can be accessed.

So, while many may agree with having a discussion about pornography, the real question is what can be done about it?

Many believe that the internet should be age-restricted, with pornography or violent content walled off from those under the age of 18. Indeed just such a system is currently being proposed in the UK, where the parliament is currently debating the Digital Economy Bill.

Part Three of that new law calls for an age verification system to "prevent access by persons under the age of 18" to "pornographic material available on the internet on a commercial basis," but doesn’t define what it means by "pornographic material."

This sounds exactly like the type of system which could be proposed in Ireland, if Enda Kenny’s conversation results in a consensus that something needs to be done.

The UK system will work by forcing companies running porn websites to verify the identity of every visitor. How that happens is still being discussed, but could include using passports or driving licences or, as one company has suggested, by using a person’s Facebook account.

But this solution will solve none of the problems which the Taoiseach describes.

First off, circumventing such a system would be so easy that spending the money to put it in place at all is pointless. The restrictions would only be enforced in whatever country brings the law in, meaning that using VPNs or proxies would easily get around the need to enter any personal information.

These tools are well known to younger internet users, exactly the people the laws are designed to protect. It means that the only people who would be really impacted by this new system are older people who are not technically savvy. This system would also create a huge database of highly sensitive personal information tied to people's online porn viewing habits. This not only creates a major privacy concern but given the sophistication and capabilities of hackers today, the security risk of such a database would also be huge.

The problem is that pornography is not just accessed on porn websites any more. Porn proliferates services like Twitter and Tumblr. You can even find pornographic images by just doing a search on Google. The internet is a distributed, complex and fast-evolving thing. Trying to shut off parts of it from certain users just won’t work.

Laws which try to restrict and harness the internet take years to enact and roll out; circumventing them takes a few minutes.

David Gilbert -

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