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How Pornhub made peace with Russian censorship by integrating with the country's biggest social network

01:15, 11 july 2017

In an effort to avoid being blocked again in Russia, the world’s largest adult website, Pornhub, recently instituted a new age-verification system that requires visitors in Russia to login through a Vkontakte account to prove that they’re 18 or older. The news site TJournal has learned that Vkontakte’s developers actually added a special field to the social network’s authorization application programming interface (API) specifically for Pornhub, allowing it to check if an individual has reached adulthood. To learn more about the change, TJournal spoke to Pornhub’s vice president, Corey Price, and Vkontakte’s press secretary, Evgeny Krasnikov.

Pornhub Vice President Corey Price told TJournal that the website instituted mandatory age-verification in Russia through VKontakte to comply with local information laws, explaining that the scheme was not dictated by Roskomnadzor, the country’s federal censor.

When users log in through Vkontakte, Price said, Pornhub doesn’t archive any personal information received from the social network. “It’s just to check if the user is over 18 or not,” he said.

Before Pornhub instituted its new Vkontakte integration in Russia, the social network’s API had no separate field by which anyone could verify a user’s adulthood. Price and Evgeny Krasnikov, Vkontakte’s press secretary, confirmed to TJournal that the new API field (“is_adult”) was added specially for Pornhub. “This allows Pornhub to continue working in Russia and remain the best source for adult content,” Price said, adding that Vkontakte was “enormously helpful.”

Krasnikov told TJournal that he’s not aware of any other websites or online services using Vkontakte for age-verification. In the documentation for Vkontakte’s API, moreover, there’s no mention of a new field, insofar as it was added specially for Pornhub, TJournal says.

What personal data is going where?

When entering Pornhub through Vkontakte, the website requests a user’s general profile information, which includes the personal data that can’t be hidden on the network: a user’s full name, city of residence, place of work, and links to other social media accounts, if the individual has listed any.

Pornhub does not see people’s phone numbers, email addresses, or other private data. Vkontakte users can hide their ages from the public, but people who do this won’t be able to access Pornhub. The website’s age-verification system makes no additional requests of Vkontakte users (for instance, about friends lists or permission to send push notifications).

Krasnikov told TJournal that Pornhub’s access to Vkontakte is exclusively ”one-way,” meaning that Pornhub gets some of people’s basic profile information, but Vkontakte receives no information in return from Pornhub about users visiting Pornhub or about the content they view there.

Passports and porn

Vkontakte doesn’t have any process for verifying the stated ages of its users, and its terms of service make individuals responsible for providing true information about themselves. But Vkontakte users are required to verify their accounts using a code delivered by SMS, and it’s impossible to purchase a SIM card in Russia without presenting a passport.

While Vkontakte doesn’t know if its users’ data is accurate, Russian law enforcement agencies can compare the passport data of a SIM card owner to the information listed on a Vkontakte user’s profile page. Theoretically, a Vkontakte account could also be linked to “cookie” files created when that user visits Pornhub, though the website isn’t registered in Russia as an “information distributor,” and currently isn’t required to share such data with Russian police.

If Russians are scared of having their Pornhub activity traced back to them, they can visit the website using a VPN connection, circumventing Pornhub’s Russian age-verification system, or they can create a Vkontakte account using a SIM card purchased with a fake passport. Russia’s law enforcement agencies are aware of these tricks, too, however, and they’re cracking down harder these days on both Internet anonymizers and black market SIM cards.

Photo on front page: Pixabay