First steps in combating unlimited access by minors to pornography

First steps in combating unlimited access by minors to pornography

The flood of responses from young women to the call by former Kambala student Chanel Contos to share their experiences of sexual assault and treatment at the hands of teenage boys has opened a window into the world that young women are navigating in this country when it comes to boys and sex.  The responses from thousands of girls have chronicled story after story of their damaging sexual experiences, abuse, unwanted sex and feelings of regret and being uncomfortable at the expectations of boys when it comes to sex.

It would be naïve in the extreme not to recognise that the unrestricted access boys and teenagers have to pornography from a young age is not in part fuelling the disrespectful, and often destructive attitudes and behaviour of these boys towards young women.

The Australian Institute of Family Studies’ report in 2017 revealed that “nearly half of children between the ages of 9 and 16 years experience regular exposure to sexual images; that the use of pornography can negatively influence their knowledge about sex, safe sex practise and gender roles; and could lead them to have unrealistic expectations about sex.”

Some of the findings from that report include:

“Exposure to pornography can shape young people’s expectations about sex, for example about what men find pleasurable, what they expect their partners to do and how consent is negotiated.”

“Male adolescents who view pornography frequently were more likely to view women as sex objects, strengthening attitudes supporting sexual violence against women.”

“Research also suggests that adolescents who consumed violent pornography were six times more likely to be sexually aggressive compared to those who viewed non-violent pornography or no pornography.”

If we as a community want to seriously address the sexual violence that is occurring against women and teenage girls, it is well past time we took decisive action.

This week provided the moment for the government to show leadership in relation to this serious matter and step up on behalf of the young women (and men) in this country. It has taken a positive first step in its response to the report from the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs recommending that the government introduce mandatory age verification for accessing pornography online.

The report was handed down in February 2020.

As the chair of the committee, Liberal MP Andrew Wallace, emphasised:

“Addiction to pornography, particularly with young people, is having a direct correlation with the levels of violence we are seeing in homes. This hardcore porn that we are seeing on the internet is very often degrading towards women, very violent towards women and children.”

Dr Michael Flood has similarly affirmed:

“There’s good evidence that pornography exposure encourages more sexist, objectifying views of women and sex and that then plays out in how young men actually treat young women.”

The nature of the problem is not disputed. The Committee Report acknowledges significant community concern about how pornography is negatively impacting young people in particular.

The government’s response to the Committee Report recognises that “children’s access to age-inappropriate or potentially harmful online services and content is a key online safety concern for the Australian community.”

Clearly, the government has a mandate for the regulatory reform recommended by the Committee and WFA joins with many other organisations in welcoming the news that urgently-needed action can now be taken.

The next stage of the process will rely on the Office of the e-Safety Commissioner developing a roadmap for the implementation of age verification while any gaps in existing standards for online age verification are identified and addressed. Recommendation 3 of the Committee report provides:

“…the Australian Government [will] direct and adequately resource the eSafety Commissioner to expeditiously develop and publish a roadmap for the implementation of a regime of mandatory age verification for online pornographic material, setting out:

  1. a suitable legislative and regulatory framework;
  2. a program of consultation with community, industry and government stakeholders;
  3. activities for awareness-raising and education for the public; and
  4. recommendations for complementary measures to ensure that age verification is part of a broader, holistic approach to address risks and harms associated with the exposure of children and young people to online pornography.”

For those who are impatient for reform, the potential for bureaucratic cogs to turn slowly still presents an issue. It is to be hoped that the Office of the eSafety Commissioner gives full weight to the word “expeditiously”. 

The government’s response provides a welcome contrast to the lacklustre response of the UK government to its own age verification proposals. In 2019 the UK government announced it would not be pursuing age verification, citing concerns such as “privacy” and “fears about implementation” as reasons for pulling back on their public commitments.

This decision was met with disbelief from the firms standing ready to implement the age verification tools. Serge Acker, Chief Executive of OCL, a London-based technology company expressed the view that:

“It is shocking that the government has now done a U-turn and chosen not to implement [this].”

“There is no legitimate reason not to implement legislation which has been on the statue books for two years and was moments away from enactment this summer. [This] would have protected children against seeing pornography on the internet, a move which would undoubtedly have been welcomed by all sensible parents in the UK.”

Across the channel, the French parliament has shown greater resolve than its UK counterpart and is going ahead with its own age verification laws, demonstrating what can be done when this issue is made a priority.

Last year, France introduced nation-wide age verification for pornography websites:

“…tech companies, internet services providers and the adult movie industry signed a voluntary charter, pledging to roll out tools to help ensure minors don’t have access to pornographic content.

In order to enforce the law, the French audio-visual regulator CSA will be granted new powers to audit and sanction companies that do not comply – sanctions could go as far as blocking access to the websites in France with a court order. 

The choice of verification mechanisms will be left up to the platforms. But lawmakers have suggested using credit card verification – a system first adopted in the UK, which mulled similar plans to control access to pornography but had to drop them in late 2019 because of technical difficulties and privacy concerns.”

These laws are connected to the initiatives in France to combat domestic violence. “The law includes a clause which aims to fine people who allow minors to access sexual content.”

According to media reports, the CSA has broad-ranging powers under the new laws:

“The CSA can now imprison someone for 3 years and fine them €75,000 (about $88,000) if it happens. This rises to a staggering €375,000 (about $443,000) for businesses who do not ensure visitors are of legal age. What’s more, the CSA can apply for a court order to take sites offline in France by blocking French IP addresses.”

Other jurisdictions are demonstrating that where there is political will and a determination on the part of the government, these issues can be meaningfully addressed. WFA eagerly anticipates further progress in this area in the hope that the gap between technology and regulation that has allowed a generation of children to be exposed to the harmful messages of pornography can and will be firmly closed.