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Future Society

Data From British Porn Viewers Might Be In The Hands of One Company

There's a downside to putting age checks on porn sites.

Kristin HouserMarch 28th 2018

Back in the old days, keeping pornography away from children was a lot easier. You had your magazines. You had your  closet with a high shelf. Boom — your porn collection was child-proofed.

The internet has complicated things. Now, every teen with a smartphone has more pornographic content at their fingertips than in all the issues of Playboy and Hustler combined.

In an effort to keep explicit material away from prying young eyes, British lawmakers mandated in 2017 that all pornographic websites must verify the age of their visitors. However, in doing so, they may have inadvertently created a new data-mining monster à la Facebook. Only this one collects information that’s far more sensitive.

“They’re going to be able to track every time you log in to anything.”

The U.K.’s Digital Economy Act 2017 requires all porn sites to verify the age of their visitors. If the sites don’t comply, the country could fine them upwards of $329,000, or block them altogether.

MindGeek, the company that runs sites like Pornhub, YouPorn, and Redtube, created a tool to comply with the law. Earlier this month, MindGeek officially launched AgeID, its age verification platform.

AgeID users will need to use something official to verify their age (a drivers license or passport). On the upside, that’s not too easy to fake. Once a user verifies his or her age on one AgeID-protected site, they can then visit any AgeID-protected site without verifying their age a second time.

“Our product fully supports the U.K. adult industry and enables those of legal age to securely and privately access adult websites through a one-time verification process, while protecting children from stumbling across age inappropriate content,” James Clark, a spokesperson for AgeID, said in a press release.

But here’s the catch: MindGeek is the world’s biggest publisher of pornography. Its sites boast 100 million daily visitors, and it is among the 10 sites that use the most bandwidth in the world (or, at least they were in 2014, according to Slate).

In the U.K., any user who wants to access any of MindGeek’s sites will have to use AgeID. Right there, MindGeek is getting that sensitive information. In the process it creates one central database for would-be hackers to access, since MindGeek owns pretty much every major porn site.

Then there’s the kind of data MindGeek collects. MindGeek may say it’s not keeping track of how users spend time on its sites — which sites they visit, which videos they watch when they get there, or even other activity on users’ computers.But there’s not really anything in the language of the British law to outright prevent that (they already do this, of course, to get a sense of which videos are popular, but they previously haven’t been able to connect that data to a user’s specific identity).

It’s conceivable, then, that Mindgeek could sell that info to someone. And a leak of it could ruin lives on a much grander scale than the Ashley Madison hack from 2015.

“You can imagine how much data that is going to give MindGeek, if they’re going to have stats on what people click on, what porn sites people click on, what they pay for,” feminist porn producer Pandora Blake told an Open Rights Group meeting in London last month. “Once you’ve got a MindGeek login, you’re going to be giving them your entire web browsing history, because they’re going to be able to track every time you log in to anything.”

Originally, the U.K. planned to begin enforcing the policy in April 2018, but decided to delay that until later this year, possibly because concerns about who is collecting data on porn users.

Opponents of the U.K. policy as it currently stands argue it does too little to ensure all this data will remain private. They also criticize the government for not being more involved in implementing age-verification systems.

“Basically, they are washing their hands and hoping the market will sort it out,” Jim Killock, the executive director of the campaign body Open Rights Group, told The Guardian. “They even said they hope the market will provide, but that’s not how digital markets work. Digital markets work as a monopoly, like Facebook, like Twitter.”

For now, the U.K. will take some time to revisit its plans to keep porn away from children. Hopefully, the system they come up with also protects the private data of adult online porn users, because, really, who wants to go back to magazines?

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