In a number of regions, new legislation is being proposed and introduced in order to keep internet users safe while they browse the web. Though for the most part changes are being made with the best intentions – seeking to prevent harm – an over-simplistic approach means that in some instances, new safeguards could actually be exposing web users to additional risks.
One piece of recent trending news is the UK’s planned introduction of an adult content block, meaning that adult websites will soon require users to upload their passport or driving licence information before viewing explicit content online. The aim is to stop children from being exposed to inappropriate imagery and videos, but in the process, adults wishing to use these websites are now acutely aware that their most intimate browsing habits could soon be connected to their ID.
With high-profile data breaches becoming increasingly common, the change raises questions about the potential for abuse of the system, and the inherent risk it presents. Many people are also concerned that some safeguarding measures are only a short hop away from internet censorship, which has been slowly rising on every continent.
Safeguards vs Censorship
Wherever you look, it seems there’s a fine line between responsible management of online content and overbearing censorship. Though tackling the spread of fake news and violent extremist content is a worthy priority, already there have been instances of governments around the world using this concept as a way to stifle political opposition – from total internet blackouts around election time, to requirements that WhatsApp group administrators register with government authorities so that ‘private’ exchanges can be monitored.
Concerns about recent legislative changes are not all around the leaking and misuse of data, but also around the potential restriction of freedom that such changes present. What is deemed to be inappropriate or immoral can vary greatly, and though preventing under-18s from accessing explicit content seems a straightforward change, other proposals around the monitoring and blocking of fake news or violent content are less clear. Who decides which opinion pieces can and can’t be reported, and who sets the line between hard-right or hard-left views, and extremism?
Countries that have always had heavy internet regulations, such as China and North Korea, demonstrate only too well the potential for a ‘safeguarded’ internet to become a government’s top propaganda machine. And with changes like the UK adult content block and Austria’s recent move to ban anonymous discourse, many online activities are becoming inescapably connected to our personal identity.
Overarching privacy concerns
In Austria’s case, internet users will soon have to hand over not only their full names, but also their home addresses before commenting on online content. Sites will be required to verify that details given are genuine, using things like mobile numbers – which in Austria, can only be obtained by providing photo ID.
Notably, at least one site which has previously been criticized for allowing right-wing hate messages to remain online has been made exempt from the new rules. It’s unsurprising that this has sparked outrage, and suggestions that the anonymity ban is nothing more than another form of censorship designed to enable a more politically-biased internet.
For UK web users, the idea that their passport or driving licence might soon be digitally linked to any explicit videos they’ve viewed is unsettling indeed. In an age where more and more internet users are keen to ensure that even their shopping preferences can’t be traced back to their IP address, the idea that sexual interests could be connected to their unchangeable personal ID is cause for alarm.
Anyone who remembers the Ashley Madison hack could be excused for feeling pessimistic about uploading their ID to an adult site. That is, a high-profile data breach in which full names, mailing addresses, IP addresses and other user information was stolen and published online, outing millions of people who had used a dating website to have extramarital affairs. Blackmail and identity theft of Ashley Madison users were just some of the wave of problems that followed, which ultimately resulted in several suicides.
Given that internet service providers already give people the option to block adult content on their home internet and on children’s mobile data plans, the idea of a nationwide ID-restricted adult content block is widely regarded as heavy-handed and unnecessary. Thankfully, for people who would rather not have their name and face intrinsically linked to their online life, there are workarounds for now.
How web users can protect their privacy online
One of the most popular, effective and simple ways to protect your privacy online – and to circumnavigate geo-restrictions and regional regulations – is to use a virtual private network, also known as a VPN.
These have a few key functions, which include encrypting your web traffic so that it can’t be read by third parties, spoofing your IP address so that browsing activities can’t be traced back to you, and offering the opportunity to connect to the internet via a server in another country.
For UK web users who want to get around new restrictions, that means it’s possible to select a server in Ireland, the USA or really any other location without ID upload rules, and access content without websites, service providers or the government knowing who you are.
A VPN can’t stop your government from trying to restrict what you see online, but it can help you get around their geo-restrictions. Rather than worry that you could become a victim of the next high-profile hack or data leak, restricting the number of sites out there who have your personal information means a higher level of security and privacy online.