Adult Trade Group Writes Letter Condemning UK VOD Regs

UNITED KINGDOM—Jerry Barnett, the managing director of U.K. adult VOD provider Strictly Broadband Ltd. and chairman of AITA, the UK’s adult industry trade association, has penned an open letter that protests regulations being enforced against adult online companies by The Authority for Television On Demand (ATVOD), an "independent co-regulator for the editorial content of UK video on demand services."

Barnett has reason to be concerned. The regulation in question—“Rule 11: Harmful Material: Protection of Under-18s," based on the Communications Act of 2003—has teeth. The relevant section of the law states that “if an on-demand program service contains material which might seriously impair the physical, mental or moral development of persons under the age of eighteen, the material must be made available in a manner which secures that such persons will not normally see or hear it.”

On Feb. 1, 2012, in fact, ATVOD issued a finding, based on a complaint filed with it by a parent, that was guilty of two violations of the regulation. According to Broadband TV News, the site was accused of offering "unrestricted access to a selection of hardcore videos and used payment mechanisms—such as debit cards and prepaid vouchers—that could be used by under 18s."

"ATVOD followed up its ruling with an Enforcement Notification, requiring the provider of to either remove the hardcore porn content from the service or put it all behind effective access controls which will ensure that only adults can see it. However, the service has now ceased operating."

Barnett, in his two-page letter that he says is intended to explain "why our industry has apparently been reticent to implement ATVOD rules," actually does a good job of explaining why the limited reach of the regulations will continue to have an inordinately negative on adult online content providers in the U.K., and could in fact decimate that part of the country's industry.

"The ATVOD regulations seem to ignore a basic fact: the internet is a global, borderless marketplace, and well over 99 percent of our competitors operate outside ATVOD’s scope," he wrote. "To my knowledge, none of the top 100 adult services viewed by UK consumers falls within ATVOD’s remit. Even among UK sites, none of the top three has bothered to notify. Furthermore, thousands of non-adult services, including Google and Twitter, freely display hardcore imagery without age verification. Therefore the ATVOD rules, particularly Rule 11, do not protect consumers in any way, but merely serve to punish those services that try to operate legally within the UK."

That said, he continued, the impact of the regulations has already been detrimental to U.K. companies.

"So far, I’m aware of one UK business that has closed down due to ATVOD’s rules, and a second that has relocated outside the UK," he stated. "If ATVOD pushes ahead with enforcement of Rule 11, the effect will be to decimate the UK adult industry. My own business would not survive the implementation of Rule 11, and I’m currently in discussion with EU-based partner businesses to outsource the key business functions if necessary. Our aim, since 2004, has been to comply with UK regulation; ATVOD is currently making that aim impossible to achieve."

In closing, he warned that even if the regulations succeed in completely shuttering the U.K.'s adult online industry, they will "not only fail to stop adult content being accessible by children, but actually remove the few ethical businesses that want to comply with UK laws and pay UK taxes. From an industry perspective, this seems counter-productive; surely the aim of any regulations should be to tilt the playing field towards compliant businesses, rather than towards those who escape regulation?"

Some regulations, of course, are actually intended to do extreme damage to an industry that cannot be taken down by other more direct means. Whether that is true of ATVOD provisions is unclear, but the proof is pretty much in the pudding. These regulations, like those failed U.S. bills that desired to implement the same requirements for U.S.-based adult sites, appear to be doing exactly what they are supposed to do.

Of course, as a trade group representative, Barnett is required to remain hopeful. Despite his complaints, he said he was pleased to see that the concerns of the industry will finally be heard with the appointment of Chris Ratcliff of Portland TV to the ATVOD board, and concluded optimistically, "AITA is looking at the possibility of creating a campaign, similar to the Drink Aware brand run by the alcohol industry, that would help educate parents on how to filter adult content from their children’s Internet devices. We feel that this would be a better way forward to a regulated industry rather than punitive measures which would simply drive the UK industry offshore."

Sincere good luck with that.

The letter from Barnett can be read here.

The ATVOD rules can be accessed here.