Monday’s launch of David Cameron’s War on Porn meant a busy day for me. I started out with a stint on Radio 4’s Today Programme at 7:15, and by 1:30pm, I was on a Sky News panel: my thirteenth media appearance of the day.
Cameron’s initiative against the “poison” of pornography covered three main announcements. In reality, two of them were largely meaningless, and apparently designed to provide cover for the third: Britain’s first full step into physical censorship of the Internet.
The three points were as follows:
- A clampdown on child abuse imagery, including a demand that Google block child abuse-related search terms. However, there was no real substance in this: child abuse images are largely traded away from the mainstream Internet on hidden, encrypted networks. Google already takes every sensible precaution to ensure that known child abuse images are not returned in its search results. This was simply a piece of empty posturing on the PM’s part - the only purposes I can identify were to make him look tough by “standing up” to Google, and to give him the opportunity to create a dishonest link between child abuse and legal, adult pornography.
- Criminalisation of the possession of “rape porn” - meaning the depiction of non-consenting sex acts by actors. Again, there seemed to be little practical purpose for this measure. Such material has become extremely rare online, and its supply is already illegal in the UK (though not in many other EU nations). More importantly there is no evidence that viewing such material leads to people committing rapes. This fact, however, did not stop Cameron from creating a dishonest implication of causation between “rape porn” and the recent murder of April Jones. As I asked in one of the BBC local radio interviews I made on Monday: Which part of the Internet was to blame for the 1960s Moors murders? Which web site inspired Jack The Ripper? This kind of link is an old trick repeated from previous moral panics: 30 years ago, we were told that unless a censorship regime was introduced for video, horror films would cause a steep rise in rape and murder. Of course, we now know that people don’t watch and copy horror films - but the censorship regime was introduced, and still exists, operated by the BBFC.
- Masked by the scary language about child abuse and rape porn, the real announcement was slipped in: all ISPs will be required to ask each home customer whether they want adult material blocked or not. This Internet filter has been the pet project of Claire Perry MP. Perry held a parliamentary inquiry into the menaces of the Internet. I was one of very few witnesses to the inquiry that warned against knee-jerk censorship. Most witnesses told stories of increases in gang rapes and heightened teenage sexual activity (although they failed to mentioned that teens are having sex older than they used to, and rape is in long-term decline - such facts spoil a good panic).
There are several reasons why the filter proposal is dubious at best, and potentially very dangerous to free speech. First of all, it should be noted that despite the noises made about child abuse and rape porn, the filter would block completely legal, mainstream pornography. The first strange part of this proposal is that there are already easy-to-use, mature parental control systems that work at the device level. Claire Perry and David Cameron avoided mentioning these, probably because they make the filtering proposal redundant. Device-level control makes far more sense than household-level control, since even houses with children in also contain adults who may enjoy watching porn. The implication of the filter is that parents should not be able to watch porn at home. Viewed in this light, the proposal is ludicrous.
But there’s more; not only can Mum and Dad no longer enjoy porn after junior has gone to bed, but the filter will be easy to work around anyway. The likely scenario is that tech-savvie teens will be able to continue accessing adult material, while their parents won’t. In that case, the only achievement of the filter is to create a false sense of security for parents, and remove their responsibility in checking what their children are accessing.
In reality, as Claire Perry is no doubt aware, the filter will stop many adults, rather than children, accessing perfectly legal content. Some people watch porn without their partner’s knowledge. That may be wrong at some level, but certainly is not a matter for government policing. Grown-up children live with their parents; it’s hard to imagine the “Mum, can you switch off the porn filter please?” conversation going down well in many households. The filter is a deliberate, moralistic, attempt to reduce porn consumption in the UK.
But there’s a darker side. UK mobile phone companies already have filtering on their 3G networks: subscribers are required to age-verify their accounts to disable the filter. Numerous cases have been documented of non-adult material being blocked by mobile companies. The obscenity law specialist Myles Jackman tells me thathis blog, which tackles legal issues about sexuality, is blocked by some mobile networks. The Open Rights Group reports that the British National Party’s web site was also blocked on some networks. I’m certainly no fan of the BNP, but official censorship of political web sites gives me even more cause for concern.
Australia implemented a filtering system, and quickly, sex education sites, gay and lesbian sites, forums discussion sexual issues all vanished from the network. Thankfully, Australia has rolled back its filter.
So who will maintain and audit the list of blocked sites? Perry blustered when I raised this question on Monday on a Sky News panel discussion. She doesn’t know, and there is no right answer. Should the government be deciding which sites are unsuitable for teenage consumption? That would be bad. Should the ISPs do it? That would be even worse.
And please remember: this is Internet Censorship v1.0. Once implemented, it can, and will, be extended in many ways.There is a simple answer: stop treating British adults like children. Let parents take responsibility for what their kids can see, and let adults look at what they want. Free expression may not always be pretty, but it is nowhere near as ugly as the alternative.
Jerry Barnett is a photographer, writer, technologist, entrepreneur, and campaigner with an interest in a wide variety of political and social causes. You can follow Jerry on Twitter @PornPanic and Facebook.