Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

Why are we suddenly talking about Peter Dutton’s Home Affairs department playing national pornography gatekeeper?

Yesterday ZDNet’s Chris Duckett spotted that Home Affairs had made a submission to a House of Representatives inquiry on “age verification for online wagering and online pornography”, proposing that its facial recognition system be used to provide an online gatekeeping system.

“Home Affairs is developing a Face Verification Service which matches a person’s photo against images used on one of their evidence of identity documents to help verify their identity,” read the submission. “This could assist in age verification, for example by preventing a minor from using their parent’s driver licence to circumvent age verification controls.”

The Department said it would “support the increased use of the Document and Face Verification Services across the Australian economy to strengthen age verification processes”.

That Face Verification Service is one of the systems Home Affairs was sent back to the drawing board on last week by the parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security, on the basis that the enabling legislation the department had drafted featured virtually no privacy or abuse safeguards, or limits to its extendability.

Many submissions to that inquiry noted that, while it was sold as a system to help address serious crime and prevent identity theft, it would immediately be extended to other areas.

Right on cue, we learnt that Home Affairs had already pushed for it to be expanded to pornography.

The age verification inquiry drew some media interest when it was established, with The Guardian’s Josh Taylor noting it had been tasked with examining the proposed British age verification system.

But where did the inquiry come from? Social Services Minister Anne Ruston and Communications Minister Paul Fletcher initiated it in September, but the origin lies with the censorship lobby group Collective Shout, founded by anti-abortion crusader Melinda Tankard-Reist.

Shortly after the inquiry was announced, Collective Shout congratulated itself in a message to its online supporters headlined “we have been heard”.

“Collective Shout recently submitted a briefing paper on the issue to the Prime Minister and the Minister for Communications making the case for effective online age verification measures to protect children from exposure to online pornography.”

The message encouraged people to make submissions, and noted that “you can request that your submission be anonymous if you do not want your name to be published on it”.

As a result, the inquiry has been spammed with over 100 submissions from church groups and individuals, often anonymous, many demanding an outright ban of pornography.

“For the sack [sic] of family’s, men and woman, and children please seriously consider cleaning the internet of all varieties of porn and violence as it is well known by many studies it destroys people and society,” wrote on submitter. “I send this request in on behalf of our church in Goombungee QLD.”

“We must look to other countries who choose to filter the content available and begin blocking many of these free sites,” wrote another.

“Could I implore the members of the committee to first ask themselves – ‘do I indulge in pornography?’ And if so, excuse yourself from any comment or discussion into this issue,” demanded yet another.

Neither Home Affairs nor most of the submissions address the specific reference to the committee, to investigate “the likely effectiveness of the proposed age verification for access to online pornography in the United Kingdom’s Digital Economy Act 2017.”

That’s possibly because two weeks ago, the UK abandoned its plans to establish an age verification system — something Collective Shout and the government obviously didn’t count on when they cooperated to establish the inquiry in September.

The problems with the proposed UK scheme are the same ones that will bedevil any Australian equivalent: such a scheme will be trivially easy to evade with a VPN (like the current internet censorship scheme put in place at the behest of the copyright industry).

It also relies on establishing a trove of potentially embarrassing personal information, with operators of pornography sites collecting identification data — or handing that same data to a government. Imagine Home Affairs having access to every pornography site visited on your family computer.

Despite the efforts of anti-pornography campaigners like Collective Shout, or claims about the damage caused by pornography (sexual violence, addiction, erectile dysfunction, depressed children, broken relationships), Australians are enthusiastic users of pornography, with three-quarters of men and 40% of women claiming to have used it within the last 12 months.

Any privacy-destroying mechanism to regulate it may create a lot of unhappy voters.

Peter Fray

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