The Digital Economy Bill 2016-17 has received Royal Assent, and with Her Maj's rubberstamp it shall henceforth become a requirement for all pornography-serving websites to verify the ages (and thus identities) of all of their visitors in the UK.
ISPs may be forced to block sites which fail to do so, and the fact that many such sites are not based in the UK nor subject to British law shall pose plenty of difficulties for the law's implementation, as will its provisions forcing ISPs to prohibit access to "non-conventional sex acts", which has provoked plenty of criticism from the less vanilla members of society.
The legislation, which requires websites serving up adult content to verify users' ages or be blocked by ISPs, was criticised as an "unworkable proposal" by Open Rights Group, among others, including feminist pornographer Pandora Blake:
On the passing of the bill, Open Rights Group's executive director Jim Killock said: "Age verification is an accident waiting to happen. Despite repeated warnings, parliament has failed to listen to concerns about the privacy and security of people who want to watch legal adult content.
"As we saw with the Ashley Madison leaks, the hacking of private information about people's sex lives, has huge repercussions for those involved. The UK government has failed to take responsibility for its proposals and placed the responsibility for people's privacy into the hands of porn companies."
A spokesperson for the Internet Services Providers' Association (ISPA) told The Register: "The regulatory regime around the new age verification proposals is still developing, so we will be working with our members to help develop an appropriate and proportionate regulatory system. As the Minister said in Parliament this week, no solution is 100 per cent effective and technical tools should not be viewed as a panacea to wider societal concerns.
"The site-blocking proposals are a significant change to internet regulation in the UK, previously rejected by Government, and only a late addition to a fast-tracked piece of legislation. In the next Parliament, we need a full and substantive debate on how blocking and related interventions impinge on the expectations and rights of UK Internet users."
And it doesn't end there. The Bill's extensive provisions allowing government departments to share citizens' data between themselves are now also law, provisions which were slammed as "inappropriate" and "untrammelled" by the House of Lords.
Speaking to The Register, Big Brother Watch's Renate Samson said: "We shouldn't assume that the passing of the Digital Economy Bill has somehow neatly shored up data sharing in government."
The Codes of Practice remain in draft forms which have been roundly criticised, not just by campaigners but by the Information Commissioner's Office, technology and data experts. The final drafts which have been promised to be shown to Parliament have not arrived, and many of the critical elements remain unresolved, in particular the right of the citizen to control access to their data. This is an issue because we know that the CoPs are the meat of how data sharing will work.
Last year, the National Audit Office warned of government's data-handling capabilities, noting that there were 9,000 data breaches over the reporting period and warning that "cuts to departmental budgets and staff numbers, and increasing demands form citizens for online public services, have changed the way government collects, stores and manages information."
Samson said that large parts of the Digital Economy Bill regarding data sharing remained unclear, and noted that it received Royal Assent with a lot of information left to follow.
"We've been told throughout the process that everything will adhere to the Data Protection Act, but that will be redundant from May of next year when the EU's General Data Protection Regulation comes in," said Samson. "Whatever is drafted to comply with the DPA will have to change for the GDPR, which means ensuring the individual's consent and knowledge regarding how their data is being used."
Such consent and knowledge was a marked feature of debates regarding the Bill in the House of Commons, where Chi Onwurah MP asked the government a "yes or no" question regarding whether citizens would own and control their data. Matt Hancock MP, the responsible minister, responded: "Well, of course citizens elect the government, and in many cases the government are responsible for data."
The Register asked the Department for Culture, Media and Sport when the codes of practice covering part five of the Bill, regarding data sharing, would be published. We will update this article when we receive a response.
Although an eleventh-hour amendment was added proposing an increase of the Universal Service Obligation from 10Mbps to 30Mbps, this was ultimately scrapped as the legislation was batted back and forth between the houses of Parliament.
The 10Mbps USO was intended to focus on the final 3 per cent of people unable to access 24Mpbs by 2020. Around 1.4 million people in Blighty are unable to get speeds of 10Mbps, according to Ofcom's annual Connected Nations report. Government has intimated that it does not want to fork out for USO funding, however, suggesting it should be an industry-funded scheme.
An ISPA spokesperson said: "The investment of ISPA members has seen the availability of superfast broadband increase to more than 9 out of 10 premises, average broadband speeds continue to rise and the number of premises with speeds of less than 10Mbps has fallen from 15 per cent in 2014 to 5 per cent in 2016.
"ISPA supports a USO that ensures everyone has the right to request a good connection that delivers the day-to-day online services users need and can evolve over time. It will now be important to ensure that the implementation of the USO does not negatively impact on the competitive market environment in the UK, as important details around specification and funding are addressed." ®