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Is it legal? Britain introduces The Porn Laws and gets its knickers in a twist

PUBLISHED: 19:54 17 April 2019 | UPDATED: 10:50 18 April 2019

Nude Reclining on Chair by Roger Hance. Could legitimate art photographers get unwittingly caught up in the UK Porn Ban? Photo: Roger Hance

Nude Reclining on Chair by Roger Hance. Could legitimate art photographers get unwittingly caught up in the UK Porn Ban? Photo: Roger Hance

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Porn is suddenly a talking point once again after the UK government announced that a UK-wide porn ban will be introduced in July. Arts editor Andrew Clarke offers a personal view about the uncertainties and shortcomings of the proposed ban and how it will affect the art world

Seated nude with Alstromeria by Hugo Grenville. Artists who sell a lot of nude protraits online could theoretically be subject the UK Porn Ban legislation. They are not the intended target but the wording of the law is so vague that someone could make a case.Seated nude with Alstromeria by Hugo Grenville. Artists who sell a lot of nude protraits online could theoretically be subject the UK Porn Ban legislation. They are not the intended target but the wording of the law is so vague that someone could make a case.

Porn. What is porn? Who gets to decide what porn is? One famous definition is that 'pornography is erotica that you do not like.' Pornography has been a thriving part of society since the first cave paintings were created and early humans carved their first fertility figures out of stone.

Porn has always been controversial (after all that's one of the reasons why it is so popular) and that is why the discovery of Pompeii gave Victorian archaeologists an attack of the vapours and led to the creation of the Secret Museum in Naples because it gave them somewhere to store the vast wealth of erotic statues and imagery that they were uncovering in Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Like it or not pornography/erotica (call it what you will) is hot-wired into our DNA. It existed before we were born and it will still be around long after we have gone.

One of the great fallacies is that it is merely a male interest. In recent years the rise of female producers and directors like Erica Lust, Dr Anna Spann, Anna Richards, Liselle Bailey, Jennifer Lyon Bell and sites like Frolic Me and Bright Desire, which deliberately appeal to women and the 'couples market', means that, for many, erotica is now much more of an equal opportunities industry.

Margo Stilley in Nine Songs. One of the most sexually explicit films in the history of mainstream British cinema could, in theory be subject to the UK Porn Ban  Photo/Handout: Marcel Zyskind.Margo Stilley in Nine Songs. One of the most sexually explicit films in the history of mainstream British cinema could, in theory be subject to the UK Porn Ban Photo/Handout: Marcel Zyskind.

Publications like The Erotic Review and The Amorist, run by women, are also seriously trying to provide another view on sex and sexuality.

The reason why it has this has suddenly become a talking point again is the news announced today that the long-delayed UK Porn Block will be introduced on July 15. This means that anyone looking at so-called pornographic material (more on this later) will have to provide proof of age first.

At first glance this all seems reasonable enough. Introduced to protect vulnerable children from seeing unsuitable content, it's hard to disagree with their undoubtedly honourable intentions but as always the devil is in the detail and it is not until you start to look at how such an age-related porn ban is going to work that you realise that the whole thing has been delivered in a 'half-arsed' fashion.

The big problem is that the whole thing is open to interpretation – which is good news for the lawyers, bad news for everyone else. No-one really knows what is going to be covered by this new legislation and what is not. Although, the operation and enforcement of the ban is going to be carried out by the much-put-upon BBFC (British Board of Film Classification) who is actually going to decide if Site A is going to be covered by the ban and Site B not. It all seems worryingly up in the air.

Artist Jane Moore from Sudbury

Painting titled Artist Jane Moore from Sudbury Painting titled "Nude" Photograph Tudor Morgan-Owen

Presumably all manner of sex acts will be covered but what about nudity? This is obviously a concern to the arts community. Do artists who do a lot of life drawing or produce a lot of nudes either on canvas or in sculpture have to submit their web-sites for verification? It's not clear. Would art photographers be subject to the Porn Ban and painters exempt? Who knows. It would be a cruel distinction if it were the case.

It all seems very vague because the treatment of sex and suggestion cannot be treated with hard and fast rules. It's difficult, if you pardon the pun, to tie down exactly what can be allowed in any given situation because all art treats the same subject matter in different ways. In the prudish Victorian era, for example, it was difficult to paint nudes and get them hung in galleries but you could get away with scandalous images of bare breasted fallen women and bronzed muscle-bound heroes if you inserted them into a biblical scene. Context is everything which makes the job of web-site hosts all the more difficult. How can you second guess these things. Where do you draw the line?

There is a suggestion that some movies, particularly foreign language films with strong sex scenes, could be viewed on television but not online or on catch-up. Ludicrous.

Leaving that to one side for a moment, the other great concern is what happens to our identification documentation because the government, in its infinite wisdom, has handed over the process of age verification over to an international porn industry. At the moment it would appear that the main age verification software will be a system called AgeID, which is owned by Mindgeek, who own one of the world's largest web-site's Porn Hub. To get round the UK Porn Block in order to access any site deemed to be unsuitable for under-18s, you will have to register with AgeID, choose an age verification option - either mobile SMS, credit card, passport or driving licence – enter age verification details into the site of a third party agency, then, when cleared, you can continue with your completely legal online life.

This painting is titled This painting is titled "Seated nude facing a window" by actor-turned-artist John Vesty

In this day and age when all sorts of highly secure websites have been hacked and personal details harvested, how dangerous is it for an off-shore company with uncertain security to be holding a database of millions of passports and other forms of official identification.

It was ironic that the email from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport which announced the UK Porn Ban also unwittingly exposed the contact details of almost 300 recipients, which serves to illustrate how easily private details can be compromised.

When challenged about privacy concerns the government offered a less than satisfactory solution. They have set up a Porn Pass arrangement where you can take your passport, driving licence, utility bill or other proof of identification to your local post office or newsagent, staffed by your friend, maiden aunt or local gossip and buy a code which will allow you access legal but age prohibited sites while allowing your neighbours to imagine the very worst about you.

The other draw back is that the value of these Porn Passes, which you will have to pay for, is only theoretical, there is no obligation for any porn site to accept them.

Understandably, freedom of speech organisations are not happy. Jim Killock, the executive director of the Open Rights Group, said: “The government needs to compel companies to enforce privacy standards. The idea that they are 'optional' is dangerous and irresponsible. Having some age verification that is good and other systems that are bad is unfair and a scammer's paradise – of the government's own making.

“Data leaks could be disastrous, and they will be the government's own fault. The government needs to shape up and legislate for privacy before their own policy results in people being outed, careers destroyed or suicides being provoked.”

Clearly we need to protect the young and the vulnerable but we need to think things through rather than putting into place this pigs-ear of a solution. The ultimate irony, of course, is that tech-savvy youngsters who know their way around VPN (virtual private network) can disguise their computer's place of origin and it will only be the older people who will mightily inconvenienced by this half-baked piece of legislation.

UK Porn Ban – What We Know So Far

From July 15, any site which has over a third of, what is deemed pornographic content, from which the owner earns money – from either subscriptions, downloads or advertising, has to be blocked and only accessed after age verification software has confirmed that the view is over 18.

Any site found to be in breach of this order will be blocked permanently denying them the second largest porn market in the world. The USA is the largest, then the UK and then Canada.

The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) will be responsible for regulating the ban. It will instruct internet providers which sites and apps to block if they are found to be in breach of the mandatory age verification checks.

Each website will have the freedom to check how they carry out age verification but at the moment AgeID would appear to be the favourite system. Porn Passes with verification codes will be made available in the high street.

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