Pornography is everyone's business

We are living in a world where graphic pornography, technology and young Australians collide daily, producing a very complex challenge.  Addressing this challenge requires the collaboration and expertise of government, industry, academics, educators, advocacy groups and law enforcement agencies working together to pave a better pathway forward. This is precisely what the Online Safety Consultative Working Group has set out to do.

Pornography can be traced as far back as the early days of human history from etchings carved into rock faces. But in recent years, with the increased affordability of data and ready access to mobile and internet technologies, the porn industry has exploded, with nearly 92 billion videos being watched globally last year on PornHub alone. Even more concerning is the growing prevalence of “extreme pornography” being propagated by the industry and accessed by our young people.

While Australian children are some of the most fortunate in the world in terms of their access to technology, this comes with both benefit and risks. One of those risks is exposure to extreme pornography—graphic, violent and sometimes degrading video content—whether deliberate or incidental.  The latest research out of Australia (Lim et al, 2017) has found that the median age at first pornography viewing by Australian males is 13, and 16 years for women—with very high percentages of young men aged 15 – 29 years watching pornography daily or weekly.

If you follow my blog, you will know that in May the Australian Government responded to a Senate References Committee on Environment and Communications report on Harm being done to Australian children through access to pornography on the Internet. As part of this response, the eSafety Office was asked to convene an expert committee to develop a shared understanding of the issues and to help shape possible policy measures.  We all came together in Melbourne last week to canvas the issues, hear from experts and set about contemplating a range of different interventions and recommendations.

The committee first heard from Liz Walker, a sexuality educator and Director of Health Education at Culture Reframed and Chair at Porn Harms Kids, who engaged the committee members with broad insights and outlined possible education, technology and community approaches. The group discussed that exposure of pornography at a young age does not sit in isolation but has many tentacles into other societal issues, including respectful relationships, gender based violence and consent.

Matt Tett, Managing Director of Enex TestLab—an independent testing laboratory, walked the group through a comprehensive analysis of possible technical solutions. Matt discussed the pros, cons and efficacy of ISP level filtering, the Family Friendly Filter Scheme and device-level controls. He also helped facilitate discussion around current codes and standards and where they were failing, working or how they could be improved.

The group was fortunate to access not-yet-published, Australian pornography research providing a further evidence base to work from, which we hope will be shared in the coming months. And despite these great strides in research, there was discussion about the need for more local research into the effectiveness of interventions—not only to limit young people’s access and exposure to pornography but also around how we build resilience in our youth and minimise pornography’s harmful effects. 

We learned that extreme porn is “big business” but that it also needed to be everyone’s business to tackle the harmful effects on young people. The debate and discussion was robust. The conversation produced good ideas, tested existing approaches and uncovered further issues. And while it is apparent there is much work to be done, there was consensus that no single measure is likely to be a catch-all solution.  Unfortunately, despite a range of interesting efforts being undertaken around the world, there is no silver bullet.

Yes, Australia is grappling with how best to deal with young Australian’s exposure to porn, but we must remember we are not alone—this is a global challenge. The UK Parliament recently passed new legislation that will mean porn consumers in Britain will need to be age-verified to gain access from April 2018. While there is no clear way forward on how this legislation will be implemented or the technical solutions needed to do so, we will watch the UK closely and will learn where we can.

We also believe that we can come up with novel approaches that are fit for the Australian populace.

The eSafety Office will continue to work with our expert committee, and others, to critically analyse all possible solutions, and following deliberations will present policy recommendations to the Government. We would like you to continue on this journey with us and we will endeavor to keep you informed as we progress.