A new bill passed Tuesday in the British House of Commons forces porn sites to carry out age verification checks. Campaigners fear that the Digital Economy Bill, which fails to specify a secure storage method for age data, will lead to a database of registered porn watchers ripe for hacking.

“I am delighted by the cross-party support for delivering the Conservative manifesto commitment to require age verification to access online pornography,” said Matthew Hancock, the Conservative government culture minister, in the House of Commons debate, which took place on Monday.

Campaigners were not so happy. “Websites could choose age verification tools that cause risk data leaks, tracking, and even encourage credit card fraud unless the government place privacy standards into the bill,” Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, said in a statement. “This is incredibly irresponsible.”

The group also raised concerns about measures that grant the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) powers to block websites that don’t comply with new bans on “non-conventional sex acts” in pornography. The list of banned acts include whipping that causes marks and female ejaculation, and the Open Rights Group is concerned that once the power to block websites is granted, it could easily extend to censoring other content. “This is unprecedented in the UK and the developed world,” Killock said.

The Digital Economy Bill follows the controversial Investigatory Powers Bill, which granted the government the power to store the top-level history of any web browser in the country for up to a year, and force private companies to give up their products’ encryption secrets. Nicknamed the “Snoopers’ Charter,” security campaigners criticized the government for overreaching into the private lives of citizens.

Theresa May, who took over as prime minister and leader of the Conservative Party in July, has been a long-standing proponent of increasing government surveillance powers.
Theresa May, who took over as prime minister and leader of the Conservative Party in July, has been a long-standing proponent of increasing government surveillance powers.

Politicians claimed that the public supports the new age verification checks. Fiona Bruce, a Conservative MP, points to a poll by London-based ComRes Global that shows 73 percent of Brits are in favor of age verification for DVDs shown online that are Rated 18, the BBFC’s highest age rating for movies. (“No one younger than 18 may see an 18 film in a cinema. No one younger than 18 may rent or buy an 18 rated video work. Adults should be free to choose their own entertainment.”)

Others point to the impact pornography has on children. “While the internet brings incredible and unlimited opportunities, it has the potential to change the way in which younger generations grow up to understand and experience healthy relationships,” Hancock said.

Others argue the proposals are weak. “My primary concern is that, ultimately, the proposed provisions will not be that effective,” said Alistair Carmichael, Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesperson. “They are capable of being circumvented pretty easily by any tech savvy 14-year-old.”

Carmichael also raised the concern with Hancock that an Ashley Madison-style hack could occur again, where hackers break into porn sites’ verification databases and release the names on file. Hancock said that the data would be subject to the Data Protection Act, but did not say that there would be any requirements for the data to be anonymized.

Some raised concerns that the proposals didn’t go far enough. John Whittingdale, a Conservative MP, asked whether the verification would apply to sites like Twitter, but Hancock said that initial focus was on the “larger swathe…of the problem,” referring to porn-specific sites.

The bill will now go to the House of Lords, where there is a long-standing convention to vote in favor of government manifesto commitments.

Photos via Getty Images / Carl Court, Flickr / girl_onthe_les (1, 2)

Mike Brown is a London-based writer with a passion for tech, politics, and photography. After studying Journalism at Columbia University in New York, he returned to the UK to cover the news as it happens around Europe. His work has been featured in IBTimes, Neowin, Building Magazine, and more.