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Twitter Has Started Blocking Porn in Germany

Twitter has been blocking the profiles of adult content creators in Germany since late 2020, with at least 60 accounts affected to date. The move comes in response to a series of legal orders by German regulators that have ruled that online pornography should not be visible to children and must be hidden behind age-verification systems. The nationwide block of certain profiles in Germany is a rare example of a major social media platform bowing to regulatory pressure to make it harder for children to view porn online.

Anyone trying to view one of the blocked accounts in Germany sees a message saying it has been “withheld” in Germany “in response to a legal demand.” The exact number of accounts blocked in this way is unknown. One pornographic account displaying this message has more than 700,000 followers. As Twitter doesn’t have an age-verification system in place, it has responded to legal demands by outright blocking the accounts for anyone in Germany. Under German law, regulators say, Twitter accounts posting pornographic content should not be accessible as there are no age-checks in place to make sure that people viewing them are over the age of 18.

The legal orders sent to Twitter are part of a larger crackdown on porn in Germany. In July 2021, regulators threatened to block xHamster, one of the world’s biggest porn sites. Legal proceedings are also underway against YouPorn, Pornhub, and MyDirtyHobby, which are all owned by MindGeek.

“Porn on social media is a problem,” says Marc Jan Eumann, the chairman of the Kommission für Jugendmedienschutz, the Commission for the Protection of Minors in the Media, or KJM, which regulates child safety issues in Germany. The KJM first complained about Twitter profiles in September 2020. Eumann says that while it’s important everyone has “freedom of expression” online, it is “obviously unlawful” to distribute pornography without age-verification systems in place. “We are looking for dialog with these companies,” Eumann says. “Twitter, for example, blocked porn profiles for German users after we instigated legal proceedings. We were actually the first authority in Europe to do so and we will continue.”

Twitter’s response to the German legal request has been to effectively vanish dozens of profiles for millions of people. Anyone viewing a blocked profile will be unable to see the profile picture, bio, or any posts; if another account has retweeted it, these posts are also blocked. A notice from Twitter directs people to its explanation of why accounts are withheld in certain countries—the same message is included on all accounts blocked at the request of governments.

But critics have argued that the German approach seems scattergun and that it lacks transparency. There are thousands of Twitter accounts that post adult content, and those the KJM has reported to Twitter appear to have large followings or are subject to individual complaints.

The social network’s rules on pornography, which are grouped under sensitive content, require accounts posting adult content to mark their profiles as sensitive. Adult content is restricted for people who don’t include a birthdate on their profiles or are under 18. Twitter also warns people before they click on pornographic material. As Twitter doesn’t have a proper age-verification system, something that is required by German law, it has seemingly felt it has no option other than to outright block certain profiles. Twitter declined to comment on the German blocks and the issue of age-verification systems.

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Paulita Pappel, who created a European branch of the adult industry trade body the Free Speech Coalition, says the move against adult content on Twitter is “far away from the reality of technology today.” There is little transparency around the accounts that have been blocked, she says and the blocks appear to be driven by regulators with conservative attitudes toward pornography who want to limit its reach. “They are using the protection of minors as an excuse to push forward very conservative policies to bring down porn companies but also smaller sex workers and content creators,” Pappel argues. The KJM says that pornography is not illegal and it is only concerned with protecting children. But by targeting individual creators, Pappel says, there is a risk that pornography is seen as “forbidden.”

Most social media websites, including Meta’s Facebook and Instagram as well as Snapchat, don’t allow pornography and remove it when they find it. But on Reddit and Twitter pornography is allowed—and there’s a lot of it. And the latest move against Twitter by German regulators is unprecedented. To date, regulators within Germany, elsewhere in Europe, and Australia have mostly targeted major pornography websites with the threat of introducing legal requirements for age-verification systems. The systems can require people to prove they are adults by providing ID documents or credit card details that are compared with official databases.

Back in 2016, UK politicians announced plans to require age-verification systems on all pornographic websites accessible in the country—but the plans were dropped three years later after being considered unworkable. Undeterred, the UK has since reintroduced the idea as part of a wider online safety law that will likely also go after porn on social media platforms. “It appears that the government wishes to bring that back, but on steroids,” says Neil Brown, a technology lawyer at law firm decoded.legal.

A possible reason for the sudden switch? Studies suggest the majority of kids see porn on social media, not porn sites. Research from Neil Thurman, a professor in the University of Munich’s department of media and communication, found that 63 percent of 16- and 17-year-olds have seen porn on social media, compared to 47 percent who had seen it on actual porn sites. One survey from the UK says 51 percent of 11- to 13-year-olds have seen pornography. Of those, 62 percent did so by accident. “In practice, I don't know how it will work,” Brown says of the UK’s latest age-verification proposal. Social media sites, he says, may be obliged to identify all adult content and then restrict access to anyone from the UK who is under the age of 18 or has not verified their age.

And it isn’t just Germany and the UK playing regulatory whack-a-mole with online pornography. Arcom, France’s media regulator, has demanded eight adult websites install age-verification systems to stop children from accessing such content. Three websites, all belonging to French-brand Jacquie et Michel, have installed age checks, Thurman says. Arcom has also sent legal letters to Pornhub, xHamster, and XVideos warning that they could be blocked if they don’t install age-verification systems.

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Many in the porn industry are unhappy with what they see as a random approach to enforcement. “It appears discriminatory and disproportionate,” Jérôme, a representative of the Tukif pornography website who did not give his last name, told French media in December. The main issue? That bigger websites had not been issued with similar demands. “The impact would be much more positive if European authorities chose a similar approach,” says Alex Hawkins, vice president at xHamster. “One that was fair and applied across the board—rather than a high-visibility but low-impact choice to ban only a few well-known sites.”

If widely implemented, age-verification systems might be a blunt tool that makes it harder for children to access pornography online—but it remains unclear how effective such measures would be. Privacy experts have concerns that the companies behind age-verification systems may profile people and even track the pornography they view. And simply using a VPN or Tor can help people get around blocks or location-based restrictions. Children have repeatedly shown they can easily find ways around restrictions by hacking into Wi-Fi networks and disabling porn filters.

“Age verification is a distraction from a different social problem: A lack of comprehensive sex education and porn literacy,” says Zahra Stardust, a postdoctoral research fellow working on sexuality, technology and law at Queensland University of Technology, Australia. Stardust says investing more in sex education could help to increase pornography literacy. “My qualitative research indicates that many porn performers are already working as sexperts, invested in sex, relationship and consent training, acting as first responders to audience questions about fantasy, reality, health, desire and bodily diversity.”

This point is echoed by Eliza Sorensen, cofounder of sex worker and technologist collective Assembly Four. Sorensen points to studies by the medical research center the Burnet Institute in Australia that point to the limited knowledge of longterm impacts of viewing pornography on children—and the need for better education around it. One 2020 study from the Burnet Institute warned that any move to make it harder for children to view porn online should not “introduce harm or shame” people who view pornography. “Policymakers are misguided,” Sorensen says. “They do not understand the problem itself or the complexity of what they’re trying to achieve.”

Updated 02/16/2022, 07:30am ET: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Zahra Stardust worked at the University of New South Wales. Stardust works at Queensland University of Technology.


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