EL PAÍS

Truths and lies about the government’s anti-porn app: from the ‘handjob’ to the ‘small effort’ | Technology

“The only thing we are asking adults to do is make a small effort to identify with a system that is very easy,” the Minister for Digital Transformation, José Luis Escrivá, told reporters on Tuesday. He was talking about the Beta Digital Wallet, the technical name for a tool that has already become popular as a strawport: a system to check that users who want to view pornographic pages are not minors. Asking for the ID of someone who wants to enter a nightclub is very easy; checking that you are an adult on the Internet is not. Because it can be falsified, because it leaves a trace, because it can violate privacy.

For this reason, and because we are talking about porn, the plan has generated a huge amount of noise: from internet privacy specialists to politicians and the general public have rushed to disqualify the plan. MEP Alvise Pérez, with his usual restraint and truthfulness, said on his Telegram channel: “Spain will be the first country in the world where masturbating daily will be illegal.” It is false, but it is the framework in which it is being read by many on social networks: they want to ban us from driving, from eating meat and now also from masturbation. It is just one of the lies, half-truths, funny hoaxes and misunderstandings that have arisen after the Government presented on Monday the technical details of this application, which had been announced months ago. What is this tool and what is it not?

Only allows 30 accesses per month?

No. Despite what some headlines may suggest, an adult will be free to enter as many pornographic websites as he wants and watch as many videos as he wants for as long as he wants. The confusion arises from the insistence on detailing the technical specifications of the system. Returning to the analogy of entering a gambling den: we do not want the website to keep a trace or memory of our ID, so the app that verifies the age has 30 cards anonymous that demonstrate to the goalie that the user is an adult (the credentials). Each card can be seal ten times at each different site, to prevent a card from having so many stamps that it would allow the user to be profiled (“this guy comes here a lot”). And the same credential is not used at different sites so that they are not linked to each other.

The batch of 30 credentials, which is delivered to the user when he requests the app that verifies your age, expires after 30 days. When there are 3 days left for them to expire or only 3 credentials, a new batch can be requested: “It will therefore be necessary to identify yourself again and verify your age. The entire batch active up to that point is deleted to prevent its use and the accumulation of unnecessary credentials,” explains Digital Transformation.

When are porn sites going to be shut down?

The system is in the development phase and Escrivá hopes that “it will be available to all citizens by the end of the summer.” At that time, or when the system is finally implemented, porn providers established in Spain will have to be ready to know how to seal those cards and thus they will enter the “white list” of adult websites allowed in our country. If they do not adapt, they will be blocked. Who will block them? The operators (Vodafone, Orange and Telefónica) have already asked not to be burdened with this ugly task. The Government has tried to involve the entire technology sector in its plan, and has already held meetings with both operators and large technology companies such as Apple, Google, Meta, Microsoft, on which operating systems, devices and applications depend.

Will the Government know if I consume pornography?

This is trickier. The Digital Wallet is like the ones already used in many mobile phones to store movie tickets or plane tickets (wallet), and will be used for many different procedures, that is, it will issue cards that confirm age, but also driving licenses, registration certificates, ID cards, tax information, qualifications and even the “absence of a criminal record for sexual crimes,” according to the Government. But if it is launched in September only to verify the age of majority on websites for adults, it is reasonable to think that it is downloaded for that purpose.

Beyond that detail, the portfolio, which must be developed by 2027 in all EU countries, has sparked intense debate among privacy specialists. On paper, member states control the system’s cryptographic keys and could see records of citizens’ activity. Until it is developed, there will be no certainty.

As expert Jorge García Herrero points out, there are currently numerous actors in the technological ecosystem who know which citizens consume pornography: the telephone provider, the VPN company, the commercial partners of that VPN, the mobile operating system, the partners who share cookies…And even “your provider” smartwatch (which detects and stores those repetitive movements of your wrists).”

There is porn beyond porn websites

Initially, this plan is intended for large pornographic content portals, such as Pornhub, Stripchat, XVideos, etc. But a large part of the videos circulate on social networks, such as the X network run by Elon Musk (which already officially allows porn), and messaging applications such as WhatsApp and Telegram. Carmen Cabanillas, general director of Digital Transformation Governance, gave an example on Monday: “If you are using Telegram and you are exchanging adult content, Telegram has the option of calling our application and verifying that you are of legal age before you broadcast or consume that content, it is voluntary.”

Is that feasible? The government hopes that Telegram, a app The court, which is known for sheltering terrorists and neo-Nazis and which the National Court was unable to overturn, is now reporting every time it detects that a teenager is watching porn. “It’s pure fantasy,” says lawyer Paloma Llaneza.

“What if I refuse?”

There are all the platforms and portals that are not subject to Spanish jurisdiction. And, as the Government has admitted, nothing prevents users from connecting to the Internet through a VPN, a tool that allows access to the network from another country and bypasses Spanish controls: “We are going to hear that this is not enough, that there may be ways to circumvent this solution,” Escrivá acknowledged. The Government is satisfied with putting up obstacles and making it less easy for minors to come across pornography. In addition, the National Cybersecurity Institute will manage “a list of pages with adult content not subject to Spanish jurisdiction with the aim that browsers can verify the age of majority before presenting their content.”

Why all the fuss, if it was so simple?

The Government and administrations have made several announcements and presentations in recent months in which they showed themselves to be both determined and confident that it was a piece of cake to put a stop to porn, to prevent it from reaching the eyes of children. A reliable age verification tool and the problem solved. “It is a practical, respectful and pioneering solution in Europe,” said Mar España, the director of the Spanish Data Protection Agency, when giving the first brushstrokes of the system that she was going to develop together with the National Mint and Stamp Factory and the Ministry of Digital Transformation. The spokesperson minister, Pilar Alegría, sold idyllic scenarios in which her mobile phone “would recognize” if it was her or her child who was trying to view porn “and would prevent her from accessing it.” Now, suddenly, citizens discover that they will have to ask permission through a app to watch porn.

Is Spain the first country to try this?

The Executive has wanted to implement a pioneering system, but it is one of the last to dare to tackle the problem: there is practically no country in the world that has not tried this in recent years. And no one has declared victory. Some have given up, others have been content with cheating at solitaire (having users say their age) and those that have been more serious have caused consequences that should not be ignored. The system that requires the presentation of a credit card (without charge), proposed in the United Kingdom, generates privacy problems, although not as many as facial recognition, another of the methods explored. In the US, several states have closed access to websites and the use of VPNs and access to portals with more sordid and less controlled content has skyrocketed. In Italy, parental control is required for mobile phones purchased in the name of minors, but nothing prevents them from using the name of other adults. In France, the implementation of a system similar to the Spanish one is currently being explored.

Pedro Sanchez wants to ban you from porn?

A year ago, in the middle of the general election campaign, Alberto Núñez Feijóo announced on Federico Jiménez Losantos’s microphones that if he governed he would launch a plan to prevent a minor “from having access to Internet pages that are absolutely inappropriate”, making explicit reference to pornography. In January of this year, Pedro Sánchez announced a plan with the same objective in an interview with EL PAÍS and Feijóo reacted by criticising the model: “The problem is much more complex. (…) They copy us well”. The PP wanted to go much further and intended to regulate not only the access of minors, but also the content, and that the operators would be in charge of vetoes, a solution with significant privacy risks. In February, José Félix Tezanos published a CIS tailored to the plan presented a month earlier: 93.9% of those surveyed were in favour of “restricting or prohibiting” access by minors to pornographic pages. But did anyone say it was easy to put doors on porn?

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