Hong Kong, too, must keep its children safe from the dangers of online porn
Grenville Cross says a move to legislate such protection in the UK, by requiring age verification for entry to porn sites, should set an example for Hong Kong, where a children’s commission is sorely needed
Children faced many dangers in 2016, including the internet. Online pornography, notwithstanding its harmful content, is freely available to anyone with a computer, regardless of age.
Although the scale of the problem in Hong Kong is uncertain, research by the Children’s Commissioner for England shows the majority of children are exposed to pornography by their early teens. A Middlesex University study found that about 53 per cent of children aged 11 to 16 have encountered pornography online, with most of them having seen it by the age of 14. Over a quarter of the group had confronted explicit pornography when they were aged 11 or 12, and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children says an entire generation of children risks being “stripped of their childhoods”.
It is far too easy for youngsters, whether inadvertently, out of curiosity, or as a result of peer pressure, to view adult websites, and the effects of pornography on their development can be devastating, involving emotional disturbance and long-term psychological damage.
Access to internet pornography must, therefore, be strictly controlled, as in the offline world, which means checking those seeking entry.
There is, of course, no God-given right to view pornography online, and the internet service providers must effectively police their systems. If pornographic websites fail to check the status of people seeking access, they must face consequences. Age can be verified through personally identifiable information, such as a social media account, a credit card number or even a name and address.
In Britain, Parliament is now considering the Digital Economy Bill, one of the aims of which is to promote online child protection. Apart from allowing the official regulator, the British Board of Film Classification, to demand that internet service providers (and mobile network operators) block access to pornography sites that refuse to check ages, the draft law also involves blocking access to websites based abroad (often the US), because the providers in the UK can control what sites Britons may enter.
Such controls are by no means unprecedented. The Phone-paid Services Authority, for example, can rapidly block access to phone line numbers offering services suggesting illegal and fraudulent activities over the phone. Britain’s culture minister, Matt Hancock, says the proposed changes will see children protected by “one of the most robust” regimes in the world, and tough responses are clearly essential everywhere. If a pornographic website provider does not have an age verification process, it will be liable to a fine of £250,000 (HK$2.4 million), or 5 per cent of turnover.
Britain’s Digital Policy Alliance, which represents online companies, has proposed age verification by using information already on file “across central and local government … and/or the private sector”. Although the alliance opposes a centralised identity database, it has suggested that adult websites would offer visitors a choice of identity providers, such as Vodafone. The user would sign in with a username and password, and the provider would then check with the data it holds.
Notwithstanding privacy concerns, age verification is an integral part of internet safety, just as “know your customer” is a basic tenet of banking security. If commercial providers do not cooperate, the British government plans to work with payment providers (including Visa, Mastercard and PayPal) to enable them to withdraw their services from infringing sites. This, however, may be unnecessary, as MindGeek, the largest adult entertainment group globally, has already indicated it will comply with the new law, while the top 50 pornography sites have likewise undertaken to cooperate. As a result, age verification pornography sites will shortly become a reality if someone connects from a UK-based IP address.
If Hong Kong had its own children’s commissioner, he or she would be able to assess the harm being caused to youngsters by internet pornography, to raise the alarm, and to advocate solutions. Even social media sites like Twitter can now provide ready access to pornography, yet the problem barely registers on the Security Bureau’s radar. Given rapid technological change, approaches to protecting children online must be constantly reviewed by a dedicated body, and it is tragic that, despite two unanimous votes in favour in the Legislative Council, the government has still not created a children’s commission.
The next chief executive must, as a priority, provide society’s most vulnerable members with the protections they so badly need.
Grenville Cross SC is honorary consultant to the Child Protection Institute