Not many people seem to have noticed yet, but in April, the Internet is going to change fundamentally for the British people.

From that point on, and for the first time ever, an official government-approved censor will have the right to order that websites are blocked, without having to get approval from a court. This will be the most powerful system of Internet censorship ever implemented in a democratic country. It comes about via a law passed in 2017: the Digital Economy Act.

The initial target will be pornographic and erotic sites that don’t conform to strict UK regulations. The censor will order sites to be blocked if they don’t validate the age of visitors, or if they contain “extreme material”. The age verification requirement means that, from April, people will have to either provide a form of ID to access porn (even free porn), or buy a card over the counter to prove their age.

Underlying all this is a widespread belief that porn is harmful. But is it? Does the government have evidence that it is? Or is porn just being used as an excuse to censor the Internet?

The modern debate about porn began in 1969, when the US Supreme Court ruled that Americans have the right to view porn in the privacy of their own home. Following this, President Johnson set up the President’s Commission on Obscenity and Pornography, to study the effects of porn on society. The commission could find no evidence of harm, nor any reason that smut should be banned. By the time it was published, a Republican President (Nixon) was in office, so the findings were largely ignored.

The UK ran a similar exercise in the late 1970s, the Committee on Obscenity and Film Censorship. Again, this found no evidence that porn was harmful, and recommended the scrapping of Britain’s obscenity laws. This recommendation was also ignored.

Soon after this, porn became far more easily available. First, video became popular, then DVD, and then the web. Porn moved out of sleazy shops into the mainstream. Once a dirty secret, it became a part of the culture. But what was the effect on people’s behaviour?

The most common allegation against porn is that it makes men “objectify” and “sexualise” women, leading to misogyny and sexual violence. So, according to this idea, we should have seen a huge rise in rape from the 80s onwards. But when 25 years of FBI statistics were analysed in 2006, there was a shocking discovery. Rape in the United States had declined 85% during the very period in which porn viewing had massively increased. Not only was porn not turning men into rapists – it was apparently having the reverse effect.

This study was confirmed over and over again in different countries. The more porn there was, the less likely men (especially young men in the 15 to 19 age group) were to commit sexual violence.

So why then is the British government trying to reduce access to porn, especially among young men? Is it simply unaware of all this evidence? Well, no. The government has run its own studies, and come to the same conclusions.

In 2011, the government commissioned Ofcom to do a study on “explicit material”. That study agreed with earlier ones – that there isn’t evidence that porn is harmful. Rather than publicise the study, the government simply ignored it (though it’s still available online).

To quote from the government’s own report:

“Research with adults indicates no relationship between the commission of sex crimes and use of pornography at an early age. Again in comparison there is evidence for the opposite effect.”

In simple language: porn seems to reduce, rather than increase rape.

So why is Britain about to get a censorship system designed to stop young people looking at porn? Mostly because porn was a good excuse to introduce a censorship system without attracting opposition. Over the past two years, a “Great Firewall of Britain” has been built without anyone noticing. Now that it’s ready, it can be used for blocking anything. And it will be. In particular, political censorship is undoubtedly on its way (under the labels of blocking “extremism” or “hate”).

Over the past two years, while we’ve been distracted by Brexit, Trump and other interesting news, the UK has started to turn into China. We lack a strong civil liberties movement in this country, but it’s starting to look like we seriously need one.

In the short term, it may be advisable to install good VPN (Virtual Private Network) software before April. This allows users to fake their location, and get around the new censorship system. There are many VPNs on the market, though Nord seems to be a good choice. Happy surfing!

Jerry Barnett is a technologist, author and civil liberties campaigner. He runs the Sex & Censorship blog, and his book Porn Panic is available from all good bookshops.