Porn licensing online isn’t going to deter the digital generation

Restricted for how long? Magnus D, CC BY

The UK government and many other interested international bodies are duly concerned about the proliferation of internet pornography. The latest development under consideration is the use of licenses to deter those that host content from allowing underage children from seeing it. It sounds a lot like an old technique applied to new technology.

Parent groups have expressed concern for some time about the lack of regulation for porn and how easy it appears to be for their children to be exposed to inappropriate content, which is fuelling the debate.

The idea of age checks is hardly new, many of us probably tried to get into a local bar when marginally underage with varying degrees of success, depending on the diligence of the bar staff, pure luck and the quality of our fake ID.

While many nations closely regulate underage bar sales and penalise licensees for selling alcohol to underage customers, underage people the world over will continue to try their luck.

The idea here is that sites hosting adult material should be required by law to check the ages of people accessing their content by asking for credit card details or other personal information that can be verified on an official database of some kind.

Sites like the BBC’s iPlayer have already introduced age restriction tools) – a very good system that gives parents full control of what can be watched. The problem is, when parents are less technologically competent or are simply unaware that this resource exists, their cherished young are free to watch an undesirable programme whenever they like.

Wherever there is regulation, there is subversion, either by the population or the distributor. There will be organisations that will agree to age checking when people try to access their websites and will co-operate with internet service providers to make sure they work but there are many more that care little for our moral standards and know that human nature, or their own agenda, will prevail.

Many ISP’s are already filtering inappropriate content but, in doing this, they are also being accused of blocking other content. The internet freedom campaign group Open Rights) is collecting information on cases where sites have been inadvertently blocked by ISPs in their attempts to clamp down on offensive material.

How it works in practice

In network engineering, there are all sorts of problems with controlling internet traffic for large corporations, service providers and government organisations. Large numbers of people are trying to access lots of different types of content and decisions need to be made about what is and isn’t appropriate in any given context. That could vary from offensive material to social network sites that a company doesn’t want to see used in work hours.

A popular trick is to scan the contents of [data packets](http://www.techopedia.com/definition/6751/data-packet by allocating it a signature via deep packet inspection and deciding how this traffic may be handled as a general rule.

Services such as Skype for example, are often an unpopular use of corporate network traffic as, in Skype’s case, it shares the services of a corporate network with millions of other Skype users. But network engineers can’t block the use of Skype completely as it uses multiple communication ports so they have adapted their approach using a technique known as traffic shaping. Skype still works, but any communication using the service would be given the lowest (almost unusable) priority on the network infrastructure. That means people could, in theory use Skype, but the quality of the connection is likely to render any chances of sensible conversation impossible.

But as soon as you shut down one route, another will always appear. Determined communities of programmers will create tunnels, attempt to disguise the traffic and use all kinds of techniques to get through your security measures.

We have to accept that once age checks for porn are applied via a mechanism that all reasonable organisations has agreed to, some people will seek out ways to beat the system.

The Authority for Television on Demand) “broadcast licences” as the latest solution. In legal terms this could work if the material was broadcast within a country’s jurisdiction boundaries. But the issue remains for many countries that the most pervasive and probably most unsavoury content will be broadcast from outside their borders. So much pornographic content is already managed by people capable of devising alternate methods to deliver it that they’d have little trouble circumnavigating any future rules.

For parents, part of the problem is how you manage your children’s use of the internet. You can’t hover over their shoulder every time they go online but leaving them exposed to all that is out there is an appealing prospect too.

One solution that takes a sideways view of the problem is hands-off monitoring software. This can be installed on a smartphone, tablet or personal computer and then feeds back to a trusted individual with a digested summary of web search history and downloads. Like resources originally designed to help people with porn addiction, the focus is on accountability and visibility as a deterrent.

This problem will evolve, politicians will continue to struggle to find the silver bullet, technology to keep children away will adapt, but so will the people that make pornography. We’ll never be able to rely on technology alone to solve this problem. Human beings will always try to break the rules, be it drinking in a bar under the legal age or looking at things they shouldn’t online. So we’ve got to also counteract this human tendency with a human touch. In keeping kids away from unsavoury content online, communication is everything.