Home / Tech / News / Why the world’s biggest porn company is backing the UK’s new age law

Why the world’s biggest porn company is backing the UK’s new age law

In 2011, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) announced the debut of a new top-level domain geared toward the adult industry: .XXX. Operated by a company known as ICM Registry, .XXX was billed as a way to allow adult companies to explicitly advertise their explicit nature, and, potentially, make it easier for parents to protect their children from accidentally stumbling onto adult content. On the surface, it seemed like a pretty good deal, yet many in the adult industry were adamantly against it.

The complaints about .XXX were nuanced. It wasn’t that people were against being upfront about the contents of their website (pornographers aren’t really known for subtlety), and it wasn’t that anyone wanted to trick kids into accessing their content. Rather, the fear about .XXX was that it created the potential for adult sites to be easily censored and suppressed — and the fact that ICANN had given control of this powerful domain to a single company didn’t sit well with anyone, either.

At the time, one of the strongest opponents of .XXX was adult industry giant Manwin, which filed a lawsuit against both ICANN and ICM Registry, arguing that ICM’s unilateral control of the domain amounted to an unfair, anti-competitive environment that potentially left the adult industry beholden to ICM’s whims. ICM could effectively force companies to register .XXX domains at whatever price it saw fit, Manwin argued, and companies that neglected to snap up a .XXX domain risked brand dilution (or worse) should someone else grab that domain first. Many in the industry applauded Manwin’s lawsuit, heralding it as a strike back against the forces of censorship and monopoly. (The lawsuit was settled in 2013.)

Almost a decade later, the adult industry is facing a different sort of threat: starting this April, the UK will require anyone wishing to access online porn to register with an age verification database. Although the creation of a massive age verification database is quite different from the introduction of the .XXX domain, the arguments for and against it are similar. Proponents argue that the age verification database will help protect vulnerable children from accessing porn, while opponents see nothing more than an opportunity for censorship, over-regulation, and anti-competitive practices.

“When we talk about age verification, it does seem very simple. It seems like, well we should keep porn from been accessed by kids. We can all agree with that,” says Michael Stabile, spokesperson for the adult industry lobbying group the Free Speech Coalition. He fears that what starts out as an attempt to keep children safe can rapidly expand to include other content, including educational information about sexual pleasure, health, and LGBTQ lifestyles and alternative identities. “What is classified as pornography varies tremendously from person to person and from regulator to regulator,” Stabile said.

But this time, Manwin — now known as MindGeek — hasn’t opposed age verification as it’s made its way from proposal to legislation to a reality for the citizens of the UK. To the contrary, it’s actively on board with the idea: a Freedom of Information request to the UK’s Department of Digital, Culture, Media & Sport revealed a correspondence from as far back as fall 2016 in which MindGeek representatives expressed enthusiasm for the UK’s age verification plan. And now that it’s gone from proposal to reality, MindGeek has set up its own age verification platform called AgeID.

MindGeek — a company that has dominated the adult industry since the early 2000s — has never been particularly transparent about its business practices, a habit it’s maintained as it’s branched into age verification. When I asked MindGeek spokesperson Catherine Dunn why the company had chosen to break with groups like the Free Speech Coalition and get into the age verification business, her response was opaque, belying the organization’s longtime support of the UK’s age verification efforts. “We firmly believe that parents are best placed to supervise their children’s online activity, and this law has the danger of conveying a message that parents no longer need to do so,” Dunn communicated through email. “The mandated, proportionate approach to regulation (start with the Top 100 sites and work down) will not achieve the child protection aims of the law, as un-monitored children will still find non-compliant adult content via a simple search query. That said, as a responsible company, we are committed to complying with the law, and hope that the regulator is sufficiently resourced to carry out its function successfully.”

MindGeek has not always shown the same commitment in other areas. The company built its fortune on piracy, capturing its initial audience by distributing competitors’ content, for free and in full, on its network of tube sites. And it has long taken a laissez-faire attitude toward verifying the age of the actors seen on its site: when anyone is allowed to upload porn, a site can’t possibly have all the documentation required of adult content businesses.

But unlike combating piracy and complying with federal records-keeping requirements, age verification offers a business opportunity — one that MindGeek is uniquely positioned to take advantage of. MindGeek isn’t the only organization that’s set up an age verification shop: “AgeID is one of many age verification platforms,” Dunn told me, noting that “it is likely their use will be split across the adult industry, with some sites implementing multiple solutions.” But given the dominance MindGeek already has within the adult industry, it’s difficult to see other platforms truly having a fighting chance. It’s onerous enough to ask consumers to register with one age verification database, let alone expecting them to sign up for AgeChecked, AVSecure, AVYourself, and Yoti in addition to AgeID. And if Pornhub, Youporn, RedTube, Tube8, Thumbzilla, XTube, GayTube, Babes.com, Brazzers, Digital Playground, Reality Kings, Twistys, Wicked Pictures, Playboy.com, and Men.com (all properties owned by or affiliated with MindGeek) are all committed to AgeID, it’ll give that platform a significant edge.

If MindGeek is positioned to become a leader within the world of age verification tech, then its decision suddenly makes sense — especially if, as many people within the adult industry fear, the UK is just the first market to legally require consumers to participate in an age verification database. Giving away porn for free has never been the most profitable business model, but charging porn producers for age verification services could potentially rake in a decent amount of cash, particularly if those services become a requirement for running an adult business.

In theory, it could be preferable for the adult industry to have one of its own at the helm of age verification; few people were thrilled by the idea of this task being overseen by outsiders who don’t understand the realities of what it means to make a living in porn. But the idea of MindGeek, specifically, positioning itself as a gatekeeper between porn fans and porn producers has some members of the industry feeling nervous. “If it were any other company except for MindGeek, I’d probably try to find more altruism in the act, but… they are such a negative force in the industry,” said a performer who asked to remain anonymous, noting that MindGeek’s promotion of piracy-driven sites has led to a dramatic decrease in performer incomes. “How much do they care about us really?”

Another source noted that the “sliding scale” pricing model promised by MindGeek could be an opportunity for abuse. According to Dunn, merchants registered with AgeID would be charged using “a sliding scale based on UK traffic,” which some have interpreted to mean that merchants would pay a small fee per verified visitor. What happens if MindGeek, whose sites receive millions of visitors daily, decides to drive massive amounts of traffic toward a competing indie site — one that can’t afford the cost of the resulting age verification? What does it mean for a company that used piracy and ruthless business practices to consolidate power within the adult industry to gain control of age verification as well?

The answer, ironically, may lie in the arguments that MindGeek once made against .XXX and ICM. In its legal arguments, the company painted a bleak picture of what might happen with a single company placed in charge of a resource with the impact of the .XXX domain, noting ICM now had the power to extort companies seeking to register domains defensively to avoid brand dilution. “ICM has reacted to these circumstances with the anti-competitive behavior expected of a monopolist,” the complaint argued. For now, the adult industry can only hope that MindGeek’s AgeID behaves differently.


Source link

Check Also

What Is a Bot?

Our in-house Know-It-Alls answer questions about your interactions with technology. Q: What is a bot? …

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.