German Authorities Want to Implement DNS Blocks Against Major Porn Sites

“You can’t stop people from being horny.”
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Image: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

In November of 2019, Tobias Schmid began a crusade to regulate some of porn’s biggest players. Schmid, the director of the State Media Authority (LMA) of the German state North Rhine-Westphalia, wanted to enforce existing mandatory age laws on porn sites like Pornhub, YouPorn, and xHamster. In practice, this would mean that all visitors to the sites would have to upload pictures of official IDs which would then be verified automatically. 

Many German media outlets were skeptical at first. Schmid is only a state official after all. But Schmid was relentless, (“Regulatory policy is his fetish,” one German daily newspaper ironically wrote), and not to mention well connected. Not only does he have a number of contacts on the EU level, the tech policy website Netzpolitik reported, but he’s also a member of the European Media Authority (ERGA). 

Now, after an almost year long legal scramble and porn sites refusing to back down, it looks like Schmid could get his way. After telecommunication providers like Vodafone and Deutsche Telekom refusing to voluntarily implement DNS blocks against a number of sites, including Pornhub, YouPorn, and MyDirtyHobby, German authorities are now in the process of legally enforcing the bans. 

Forcing porn sites to implement ID checks is not a new idea. The United Kingdom was planning to implement a similar law in 2018 as the third part of its Digital Economy Act, but it was later scrapped because of privacy concerns. In most cases this  could be done either by uploading a photograph of an official ID, or more controversially by using AI-powered age estimation software like Yoti.

But the situation in Germany is different from the UK, says Alex Hawkins, Vice President of xHamster. According to the law planned in the UK, any site that failed to implement age verification checks would have been blacklisted, in contrast to Germany, where authorities are targeting a small number of big market players. This is a problem for large porn sites because age verification checks can push users who want to consume porn anonymously to other smaller competitors. 

“Protecting minors from adult content found online is a positive idea. And one that everybody should stand behind,” Hawkins wrote in an email to Motherboard. “But what is happening here instead is an attempt to censor a few of the big adult industry market players, leaving hundreds of smaller adult websites unsupervised. We have been selectively asked to restrict access by implementing AV [Age Verification]. What would a user do in this case? A user would simply choose another free (not subject to AV) website. Will such an approach protect minors? Hardly. The majority of users would opt for another adult website without AV.” 

Besides simply finding sites that haven’t yet been forced to implement age verification, users could also still access sites that do use age verification by simply using Google Cloudflare, or a VPN to browse from another country. 

Beyond questionable effectiveness, ID checks like the one German authorities are proposing have been criticized by experts. These criticisms are becoming even more pertinent as legislators increasingly argue that online accounts should be tied to identity documents. For one, handling personal information with extremely sensitive and oftentimes intimate data around sexuality and porn consumption is a disaster waiting to happen. And secondly, it can push an already taboo topic even more out of bounds. 

I’d definitely give a thumbs down to these kinds of age identification laws, even if I agree with some of the basic sentiment,” Emily van der Nagel, a lecturer at Monash University and author of the book Sex and Social Media, told Motherboard. “I think we can broadly agree that letting children watch adult pornographic material without any sort of context is harmful. But, when the legislative and policy environment seems to all be about blocking and hiding things it doesn’t send a good message about human sexuality. It makes sex seem bad, dirty, dangerous and wrong. That’s not a positive attitude to be communicating.” 

Rather than only fighting porn because it can sometimes contain ‘offensive’ content (Schmid is particularly concerned about gangbang scenes), some countries have decided to embrace porn, or at least accept the reality that it will always be there. 

The state-funded Swedish Film Institute, for example, helped to finance Dirty Diaries, a set of short pornographic films produced by activists to “explore what porn could be from the perspective of the female gaze and queer identity.” And projects like Australia’s Labia Library and Denmark’s “Ulta Strips Down” can be examples of how to spend time and money on creating sex-positive resources, rather than engaging in an unwinnable game of trying to hide it from minors.. 

“It’s perhaps a very academic answer to say that everybody needs more education,” van der Nagel said. “Let’s assume that children are going to stumble across adult content at some point and prepare them for that reality. Yes, these are naked bodies. Yes, these are adult bodies. Yes, these are the things that adult bodies sometimes do together for various reasons.” 

“You can’t stop people from being horny,” she continued. “Pornhub doesn’t own porn. People, including teenagers, will find somewhere to access adult material. If there’s anything we’ve learned in the past few years, it’s that porn will always find a way.” 

Tobias Schmid and the Media Authority of North Rhine-Westphalia did not respond to a request for comment. 

Via Motherboard

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