German child-protection regulators are on the verge of blocking one of the world’s largest pornographic websites. The officials are set to issue a blocking order to the country’s biggest internet service providers saying a pornographic website, believed to be xHamster, should be made inaccessible to Germany’s 83 million people.
The blocking order, which may be issued in the coming weeks by the Commission for the Protection of Minors in the Media (Kommission für Jugendmedienschutz in German, or KJM), follows a failure by xHamster to introduce age-verification checks to stop under-18s from accessing pornography. The order is the latest salvo in a two-year campaign by regulators to compel all pornographic websites accessible in Germany to implement age-verification checks.
Legislators around the world—including in Canada, France, the UK, and some US states—are looking to introduce more measures aimed at stopping children from accessing adult material online. But the move by Germany is one of the most sweeping measures taken so far, with critics comparing it to censorship.
German officials are taking action against four major pornography websites, says Marc Jan Eumann, chair of the KJM. The group, which represents the country’s 14 state media authorities, is responsible for enforcing a broad treaty agreed upon by all states around the protection of children. It is in addition to other German laws on child protection. Eumann refuses to confirm the four websites the KJM is taking legal action against. However, German reporting says the cases are against xHamster and three websites, YouPorn, Pornhub, and MyDirtyHobby, all of which are owned by MindGeek.
The regulators have been trying to force pornographic websites to introduce age-verification checks—which can involve the uploading of identity documents—since September 2019. Much of this has been pushed by one state regulator, Tobias Schmid of the State Media Authority of North Rhine-Westphalia, who has been criticized for his views on sex, but the matter is now also being handled by the KJM.
Eumann says companies should put in place age-checking systems to make sure their visitors are not children. The law says pornographic content should be accessible only by adults, Eumann says. In all four of the cases the pornography websites, which have German-language versions, are accused of not introducing age-verification systems.
One pornographic site, thought to be xHamster, was first contacted by regulators in March 2020 and then the others by June 2020. The requests for age verification have now turned into a legal tussle, and three cases are waiting for hearings in one of Düsseldorf’s administrative courts, Eumann says.
In the case of xHamster it is believed there was no response from the website’s owners. As a result, the case is thought to be the most advanced and could result in the order issuing the site to be blocked in Germany in the coming weeks. At the end of June 2021 the KJM identified the company that hosts xHamster and asked it to make the website unavailable. “We have a blocking order for the hosting provider, which is based in the Netherlands,” Eumann says. “If the host provider does not comply, we will take the last step.” That order expired at the start of this week, the KJM has confirmed. “The last step is taking actions, a blocking order, against German access provider,” Eumann adds.
In reality this means issuing a blocking order to Germany's biggest web providers—including Vodafone, Deutsche Telekom, O2, and 1&1—demanding that they block the website for people trying to access it in Germany. The largest providers will be targeted first, with smaller ones following, and it is likely a block would happen at the Domain Name System (DNS) level. When you are browsing the web, the URL that you type into your browser’s address bar is converted to an IP address by DNS. Imposing a DNS block would mean anyone typing the pornography site’s address into their browser wouldn’t be able to see the page.
It’s likely German web companies may challenge any blocking orders through the country’s legal system—meaning the battle over age verification could be dragged out for years to come. Officials initially tried to get the web companies to voluntarily impose web blocks on xHamster in August 2020, documents show. The internet providers refused to block the sites voluntarily, potentially setting in motion a lengthy legal showdown. “We've already talked to them, they are not happy,” Eumann says.
A spokesperson for 1&1 says it would “assess” any blocking order as and when it is received. “Legal requirements for website blocking orders are quite high according to the Supreme Court (BGH) Judgements,” the spokesperson says. A Vodafone spokesperson says they would look at any order if and when it is received. None of the other web companies replied to a request for comment. MindGeek did not respond to a request for comment and xHamster declined to comment, citing ongoing legal proceedings.
Making pornographic sites introduce age checks to make sure people accessing them are over 18 isn’t a new suggestion—but it is one that’s proved controversial. In 2017, the UK passed the Digital Economy Act, which required adult websites to introduce age-verification technology for all visitors from the UK. But the law, which was dubbed the porn block, was delayed multiple times before collapsing altogether in October 2019.
History could repeat itself in Germany but the idea of age verification is taking off around the world. Europe’s Audiovisual Media Services Directive requires companies to put measures in place to protect children, a bill in Canada is looking to introduce age verification but has faced privacy concerns, Australia has recommended using digital IDs to access pornography and officials in Utah have been pushing a law that would require new smartphones and tablets to have pre-installed and on-by-default pornography filters. France has also threatened to block pornographic websites that don’t put age-verification systems in place.
But German regulators are the closest to introducing any blocks—and the approach is proving divisive. Paulita Pappel, a cofounder of adult site Lustery and the curator of the Pornfilmfestival Berlin, says the worst-case scenario would be if Germany “creates this firewall, that they start blocking sites and say France follows suit. That would push production companies even further to the margins. They would probably move their servers”.
Pappel says that such moves are “comparable to China's censorship” and could put the pornography industry back decades in terms of its reputation. She worries the focus on age verification will filter down to adult companies with less resources to implement them. “Smaller companies, queer performers of color, these are the people that are going to suffer the most,” Pappel says, adding that there should be more of a dialogue between regulators and the industry to ensure positive outcomes and provide young people with better education around sex.
Eumann argues that the actions it is taking are not about pornography itself, but rather protecting children. “We're not going from this perspective that we have something against pornography,” he says. “It's not against net neutrality, it's not against freedom of speech. It's just for protection of the minors.”
Since the UK proposed age-verification checks around half a decade ago there have been questions about the effectiveness of any such systems. A multitude of age-verification technology companies have sprung up, and experts say to best protect people’s privacy and security there need to be consistent standards in place. This also applies to laws around the world: it is easier for pornographic websites to put age verification in place if multiple countries have the same requirements. One point of tension is social media: Some proposed age-verification laws focus only on commercial pornography websites and ignore the huge amount of adult content on websites such as Reddit and Twitter.
“There is a legitimate question about how effective this kind of legislation will be,” says Neil Thurman, a professor in the University of Munich’s department of media and communication, who has studied pornography regulations and people’s opinions on them. Thurman recently surveyed 1,000 16- and 17-year olds in the UK and found that 63 percent of them had seen pornography on social media, while 47 percent of them had seen it on dedicated pornographic websites. (It also found those seeking out pornography would be more likely to do so on dedicated pornographic sites).
Then there’s the question of how well any such systems work. Simply using a VPN or Tor allows you to get around location blocks that are placed on content. Someone in Germany can easily set their location to the UK to avoid local restrictions in much the same way that some people use VPNs to access US Netflix in the UK or BBC iPlayer in Europe. And both teenagers and regulators are very aware of these limitations. Thurman’s research found that 46 percent of the teenagers surveyed had either used a VPN or Tor in the past—another 23 percent knew what they were. The KJM says it doesn’t expect its age-verification laws to stop every person under the age of 18 from accessing pornography.
To date, only one major international pornographic site has introduced age-verification checks in Germany. On May 25, subscription-based website FanCentro, which lets adult performers sell access to their content and has ten million users, introduced age checking developed by UK-based firm Yoti. Nicholas Hörger, FanCentro chief sales officer, says the US firm decided to follow German rules to protect its adult influencers who could potentially be held liable if their subscribers don’t complete age checks. The company spent six months reviewing different age-verification options before picking Yoti’s.
Hörger says the move has gone down well with its German influencers but says he suspects other companies are waiting to see the results of regulations and legal challenges before they adopt any such technology. “In addition to the potential loss of adult consumers, a platform must pay for each verification attempted, which can become costly, depending on your business model and platform,” he says.
So has the age-verification tech made any difference? Hörger refuses to share specific numbers on whether it has resulted in a decrease in users but admits there has been a difference. “There is a percentage of adults who still don’t feel comfortable uploading their ID on an adult site,” Hörger says. “FanCentro’s age verification check happens after they’ve input a credit card or bank details, so we know it’s not an issue of age, but rather concerns about privacy. It’s possible this will change over time.”
This story originally appeared on WIRED UK.