August 9, 2023 - 4:00pm

Last week, Arkansas became the latest US state to introduce age verification checks for adult websites. Pornhub, the world’s largest porn site with over 115 million visits a day, retaliated by blocking all traffic from IP addresses in the state in protest. It has also done the same in Utah, Mississippi, Virginia and Texas — all of which have enacted similar policies — while in Louisiana, traffic on the site has fallen by 80% since age verification checks were introduced earlier this year. Montana is following suit in January 2024, with dozens of other copycat bills also being debated.

The UK is increasingly looking like an outlier in not enacting age verification legislation for adult content. From Canada to Australia to South Korea, more and more countries are putting pressure on the porn industry to make sure they restrict access to underage users. Earlier this year France introduced “digital certificates” for people to prove their age online; any porn website that does not comply risks being shut down or fined. These are now being extended to social media websites with an age limit of 15, unless minors can prove they have authorisation from their parents. Last year Germany’s biggest porn site, xHamster, was banned for refusing to verify the age of its users, while a judge in the Netherlands has ruled that the site must remove all its amateur videos unless it can demonstrate that everyone has consented. 

By contrast, the UK’s policies towards the porn industry are not just laissez-faire but non-existent. Revenge porn has been a sexual offence since 2015, and the Domestic Abuse Bill recently made even threatening to share sexual images illegal. However, in 2023 there are still no legal frameworks in place to stop children watching porn. Any child with an internet connection in the UK simply needs to click a box saying they are 18 and suddenly they have access to “adult” entertainment — the clue is in the name. 

Ironically, the UK was actually the first country to pass a law containing a legal mandate for an online age verification system with the 2017 Digital Economy Act. Yet, after various setbacks, these plans were dropped in 2019, on account of technical difficulties and concerns from privacy campaigners. Last year, the Government revived the proposal as part of the Online Safety Bill, and in February 43 MPs wrote to the Culture Secretary to ask for this to be formally incorporated into the Bill — yet there has been no further clarity over how and when any age verification systems may come into place. In England the average age children first see pornography is 13, with nearly 80% viewing violent pornography before they are 18. One in 10 have watched it by the time they are 9 years old.

It’s telling that the Government is quick to crack down on underage vaping — a relatively new fad — but so slow to deal with something that has been proven, time and time again, to be far more dangerous. Of course there are security and privacy questions, but the fact that Pornhub would sooner stop doing business altogether than verify that its users aren’t children gives a pretty telling insight into the morality of the pornography industry. Some may argue that teenagers will get around these blocks by using VPNs to change their location, but that often requires payment. Besides, the goal is not to make access impossible but, rather, more difficult, and this will be even more effective if we have more international uniformity.

Pornhub promotes itself as the poster child for internet freedom, and the age verification debate as a binary choice between protecting one’s privacy and succumbing to a surveillance state. Ultimately, though, this is about child safeguarding, and the sooner the UK catches up the better.

Kristina Murkett is a freelance writer and English teacher.