Opinion: Government’s coronavirus bill lowers standards and is ripe for abuse

In what’s been called “a drastic reimagining of state powers” by Martha Spurrier, Director of Liberty (a human rights charity), the Government’s planned coronavirus bill is too broad and is ripe for abuse.

In Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones, broad emergency powers are granted by the legislature – eventually leading to the formation of the Galactic Empire. Whilst Boris Johnson is unlikely to take the title of Emperor, it’s worth remembering that granting broad emergency powers should not be taken lightly.

Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) did not use his ‘emergency powers’ for good. Credit: IMDb / Lucasfilm Ltd.

The planned legislation will be time-limited for two years. It should be shorter – the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, which deals with emergencies such as war and terrorism, has emergency regulations expire after 30 days, unless renewed by Parliament; when the peak of the virus is expected to hit between late May and late June of this year, it is unclear why Government should not have to apply for an extension to these unprecedented powers, and why they would still need them as far away as 2022; Parliament can always renew powers if they are needed for longer.

According to the BBC, it is likely that there will not even be a vote on the powers, instead they will be nodded through by Parliament. This means the bill will not be properly scrutinised by our elected representatives.

Giving law enforcement powers to detain and isolate people in a pandemic may sound good in theory, but there need to be clearly defined safeguards against abuse. How these safeguards can be robust to protect our civil liberties is questionable considering the lack of proper scrutiny. Martha Spurrier is right in saying that we “must not allow the hollowing out of human rights to become the go-to for the Government when it’s in a crisis.”

According to The Times and the Government:

  • Only one doctor will be required to sign death certificates, and the need for inquests to be held with a jury will be removed.
  • Furthermore, only one doctor will be needed to detain people under mental health laws, rather than the two currently required.
  • Additionally, local councils will be able to lower care standards so they can “prioritise” between residents in need, “even if this means not meeting everyone’s assessed needs in full”.
  • Also, ministers will be able to reduce teacher ratios, slash school meal standards, and reduce standards for children with special needs.
  • In addition, the government will have the ability “to restrict or prohibit events and gatherings during the pandemic in any place, vehicle, train, vessel or aircraft, any movable structure and any offshore installation and, where necessary, to close premises”.

These changes set a dangerous precedent where oversight is thrown out of the window and standards are lowered with no proper scrutiny of the changes; lowering care standards carries the additional risk of putting vulnerable people in danger in a time where they may need additional attention.

In a crisis, it is more important than ever to make sure sweeping changes to our democracy and our society are not made under the guise of public safety.

In the words of Peter Hitchens, of the Mail on Sunday, “You should be seriously alarmed.”

Featured image: Marcin Nowak / Unsplash

Porn age verification: An interview with Myles Jackman, obscenity lawyer

This article was updated at 14:11 on the 15th March 2019. MindGeek do not own 90% of ‘tube’ websites, as a previous version of this article quoted, however do have multiple high profile sites in their portfolio, including RedTube, Pornhub, YouPorn, and Brazzers. I apologize for this error.

Image of Myles Jackman by
Paul Clarke [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

With the planned introduction of compulsory age verification for viewing pornography in the United Kingdom, which will require adults to provide sensitive documentation such as passports, credit cards, and driving licenses in order to view perfectly legal pornography, I interview Myles Jackman, an obscenity lawyer and former UWE student, known for his successful defence in the landmark R v Peacock case, he was also the first acting solicitor allowed to live-tweet from a trial, and was awarded the Law Society’s Junior Lawyer of the Year Excellence Award in 2012 for his work. In the interview, I ask Mr. Jackman for his opinions on the effectiveness of the upcoming age verification methods; their potential impacts on LGBT rights, civil liberties, freedom of expression; how Brexit might have an effect; and how UWE students can seek to replicate his success.


Jackman: Theoretically, age verification is going to be applied for adult content consumed in the UK from the 1st of April. In reality, what we’re hearing from the frontline is there may be a few weeks’ delay on that. But, it’s already been delayed for over a year, because we have repeatedly raised privacy and security concerns about the system. In other words, there is significant risk that everyone’s private sexual details could be leaked, hacked, or otherwise breached and put in the public domain. MindGeek have estimated that 25 million adults will sign up from the UK to age verification in the first month alone, so we’re talking about essentially half of the adult population.

What would you say to those who are worried about their children potentially accessing pornography, do you think this verification will help?

Jackman: No, they’re really pretty useless, because they can be gotten around with Tor, proxies, VPNs, etc. very easily. They’re not difficult to circumvent for people who are tech-literate. So, as usual this is a measure intended to improve things, which will only target people for whom it wasn’t a problem in the first place, effectively.

There’s also the next issue: should we be deferring having conversations with our children from our own parental responsibility to that of the state. In other words, this is just seen as an easy victory for government and some kind of magic bullet for parents, but it’s not. Even its proponents say it won’t be more than seventy per cent effective — and that’s the absolute highest amount they expect to be caught by age verification.

Do you think that the introduction of porn filters could lead to clandestine websites appearing that may have access to more extreme, and potentially illegal, material?

Jackman: Yeah, that’s a serious risk. There’s a risk of cyberfraud – people who don’t know which sites they’re going to being asked to give their details, there’ll be cyber blackmail: “oh no, you’ve just put your details in to our weird sex website, give us £500 or we’ll release your details to the public”. That sort of thing. So, there’s going to be an arch swing in that kind of behaviour.

How can we, as individuals, resist these intrusions on our civil liberties?

Jackman: The easiest thing to do is not to comply by using proxies, Tor, and VPNs, and then to protest against the unnecessary introduction of this system.

Do you think that these pornography filters are incompatible with freedom of expression?

Jackman: They are going to have a significant impact on the free speech ecosystem. For those smaller providers who can’t afford age verification, or who think that it’s too much of a practical hassle for them to have to maintain, say a very small text-based erotica website, we therefore will see a massive reduction in the number of active websites on the internet relating to adult sexuality. And unfortunately, alternative sexual communities, such as LGBTQ, BDSM, sex workers, etc. are likely to be hit the most, and disproportionately.

What impact, if any, do you think the upcoming pornography filters will have on LGBT rights and wellbeing?

Jackman: When the actual filter was first introduced, it filtered out loads of LGBTQ advice sites, so for younger adults who want information about safer sexual practices, these were just hidden, and that was a massive mistake. It’s a perfect example of where the protect the children logic goes wrong.

What impact do you think that Brexit will have on the rights and civil liberties of UK citizens?

Jackman: Have you got any easy question?! Just kidding. Brexit itself is pretty difficult to call anyway, let alone trying to establish the outcome on civil liberties. Let’s assume that Brexit occurs, it’s really difficult to tell what the impact will be on the adult industry. For example, because GDP is likely to be hit by 9%, will there be less payment for pornography as people are literally tightening their purse strings. Or, will people be in desperate need of recreation, and therefore consumption won’t be hit. There is an issue for production, if money isn’t put in to the system to pay for the porn, then no-one will be manufacturing apart from the very big corporate sites. That has an impact on free speech, because for those people who wish to consume that material, they may be denied their right to receive it because it’s not being manufactured.

What impact do you think there will be on human rights in general, considering that the Conservatives wanted to repeal the Human Rights Act, which we can’t do until we’re out of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR)?

Jackman: With adequacy agreements in place for GDPR, that might be sufficient [on privacy and security issues]. But there are so many human rights issues, both digital and real-world that are so difficult to ascertain. I would imagine that privacy and security of data are significantly at risk in event of a no-deal Brexit.

Do you think that the UK is seeing a regression in the breadth of rights and liberties afforded to its citizens?

Jackman: Yes.

What is your opinion on the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), do you think that it should instead be optional to be rated, rather than compulsory, similar to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) in the United States?

Jackman: It’s somewhat confusing that what is ultimately formed as a trade body should become the prima facie censor for the internet. The same problem [that arthouse film producers face] exists for porn, for indie producers it’s very expensive to get rated. The BBFC saying ‘oh no, just send us your porn and we’ll tell you if it’s legal or not’, and that may have a cost implication for producers that is unrealistic. We’re still not really in receipt of realistic guidance on the type of material that the BBFC will consider legitimate, although we do have a change in the Obscene Publications Act guidelines under the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] as to what kind of material may now be legal.

What advice do you have for UWE students who want to replicate your success?

Jackman: Identify an area of law that you’re passionate about, create a brand and say something interesting, and believe in yourself.

[End of interview.]

This interview was transcribed from a recording of an interview conducted over the phone. Whilst all efforts have been made to ensure accuracy, there may be some errors in transcription, for which I apologize.