If you didn’t already know, the United Kingdom is instating nationwide age restrictions on the access to internet porn. We’ve already covered the upcoming ‘UK Porn Ban’ in articles here and here.

For those still unaware, this April, age verification software will act as a censoring method under the guise of stopping children from accessing porn. In our previous articles, we’ve covered some of the main concerns regarding the UK Porn Ban’s ethical veracity, as well as its methodology. Now we want to cover some of the history related to the UK’s stance on internet censorship and Britain’s attitude to pornography.

Censorship In The UK

The United Kingdom, like most other countries, has had forms of censorship over media for a long time. Handled by the  British Board of Film Classifications (BBFC), all media circulated in the form of film, television, adverts and so on are classified as to the suitability of their content.

If you are unfamiliar with the British classification system, generally, films and TV are given classifications in accordance with the recommended youngest suitable age to watch. The ratings are: exempt (E), universal (U), parental guidance (PG), 12A, 12, 15, 18, and R18.

Works classified with a 15 rating are allowed to contain nudity if it is justified by the context, be it artistic or educational. Acts of real sex are also permitted under 18 ratings provided they have similar justification. It is only with an R18 rating that works containing real sex for the purpose of pornography can be sold. The R18 rating restricts where these works can also be sold.

These restrictions and classifications do not apply to media that isn’t physically sold. The internet porn industry is, therefore, was beyond the BBFC’s reach.

UK Censorship And The Internet

The UK’s internet has always been policed in a somewhat removed fashion that is nowhere near the worst in the world. The UK government has worked to ensure that criminal activity reduced in balance with the right to freedom of expression.

An example of the UK's internet policing strategy is that British citizens can be found guilty of creating child porn by downloading it, due to the creation of the copy. Similarly, any illegal activity conducted through the internet like buying drugs is considered in the same manner as an in-person purchase.

In 2014, the UK changed its laws regarding the censorship of internet porn. What this meant was that paid-for online porn would now be subjected to the same restrictions that governed physical media. The BBFC’s R18 classification now had internet governance.

The controversy that followed related to the fact that the R18 rating censors what is appropriate in pornographic content. Listed in the now censored content were acts such as spanking, caning, whipping, object penetration, abuse, urolagnia, female ejaculation, strangulation, facesitting, and fisting.

Immediately protests were organized around the country, culminating in a facesitting protest outside the Houses of Parliament.

The Criticism Against Internet Porn Censorship

Protesters against the censorship rallied around three criticisms.

The first criticism was that the attempt wouldn’t work to actually limit the spread of the kinds of porn mentioned. Second, was attempting to censor internet porn treats it as a scapegoat for unrelated issues. The third criticism centered on the specific porn categories censored. Activists claimed that the classified content was sexist and homophobic in its particular singling out of activities that are women or LGBTQ+ people focused.

The parallels with the criticisms of the latest UK Porn Ban are clear. Since the arguments made against the 2014 censorship laws, more studies have been made to back up the evidence that porn cannot be directly linked to trends in sexual violence and abuse. As internet porn has become more widespread over time, there has been a decrease in the projected risk of sexual violence against women.

Another argument in the same vein was made by the UK government that porn has a negative sexual effect on the men watching it. This has also been debunked by multiple studies and reports.

Sexual actions such as female ejaculation have been specially singled out as exemplary for the sexist nature of the restrictions brought in back in 2014. The BBFC’s decision to not censor male ejaculation demonstrates the priorities and male-gaze of the lawmakers.

Nick Cowen’s report on 2014’s restrictions notes that the UK’s government seems to be taking a step backward in its political integrity. When homosexuality was illegal in the UK, politicians could be exploited and denounced for practicing acts we know no to be unproblematic. Cowen argued the UK was recreating the scenario where someone could be prosecuted for actions that weren’t morally reprehensible.

So the UK government compromised its political integrity to develop a law that's easily bypassed by changing your IP address.

The 2019 UK Porn Ban

The 2019 porn ban comes with concerns new concerns for privacy. In order to access now restricted content, internet users in the UK need to present proof of their age that will connect their online activities to their real identity.

That is unless they use a VPN to simply connect to the internet with a non-British IP address.

It’s important to note that many of the objections raised then as well as now are not directed at the porn industry itself. The vast majority of criticisms are regarding the methodology of censorship, not the creation of the content in the first place. Whether the porn industry as it stands is a safe and valuable part of society is an increasingly relevant conversation. However, that’s for a different article.