Posted at 23:16 on 17 Oct 2011 by Pandora / Blake
Last week, the government unveiled a deal with four of the UK's biggest internet service providers - BT, Sky, TalkTalk and Virgin, collectively comprising about 90% of the market - which will oblige new subscribers to "opt in" if they want to view web content which has been categorised as sexually explicit.
I wrote about this in December last year when the Tory proposals were first publicised. This is part of a large-scale campaign against the so-called "sexualisation of children" which include such regressive proposals as Nadine Dorries' sexist plans for abstinence-based sexual education for teenage girls, and which collectively poses a significant threat to fans of sexual freedom, civil liberties and digital rights.
In June this year the government-commissioned Bailey Report was published by the Chief Executive of the Mother's Union, a Christian charity, in conjunction with the Department of Education. Dr Brooke Magnanti wrote an excellent critique of the dodgy evidence used to substantiate the anti-porn agenda back in May, which also revealed the extent to which the whole programme has been fueled by the American Christian far-right:
Looking deeper, the 'research' turns out to be The Social Costs of Pornography: A Collection of Papers. It includes contributions from such notables as Patrick Fagan from the Family Research Council, a far-right American lobbying organisation. Fagan also works with the Heritage Foundation, once considered the architects of the Reagan administration's covert Cold War operations, and active supporters of George W Bush's international policy. Fagan's other recent papers include "Virgins Make the Best Valentines" and "Why Congress Should Ignore Radical Feminist Opposition to Marriage".
The whole anti-sexualisation campaign plays to a crowd which is prudishly suspicious of the adult creative industries. Feminist pornographer Anna Span points out that not only can access to porn have a positive impact on people and society, but that blocking commercial porn sites won't stop teenagers from viewing it anyway, as (not having credit cards) they tend to access porn through filesharing rather than paying for it. Creating an adult pornsite blacklist will only penalise the legitimate producers:
If the government wants to stop children from accessing porn, all it needs to do is to listen to the world's adult industries (who are united with everyone else in wanting to prevent underage access). We say they need to take down the (handful of) porn torrent sites, which give teenagers free, easy access to hardcore scenes scenes whose copyright has been stolen from the producers.
As I wrote last year, it's not only adult paysites that stand to be caught by the filter, but crowd-sourced sites such as Tumblr, hosted blog sites, LGBT and sexual education resources. The problem is the lack of democratic process and transparency in the creation of these blacklists, which rest entirely in the hands of the private sector.
Tech journalist Violet Blue sums up the problems with the proposals as follows:
I refuse to overlook the fact that each ISP has not revealed what is on these blacklists, while at the same time they have all made it clear that their filtering blacklists contain websites beyond the scope of adult pornography. Nor have they defined pornography. [...]
With the UK conservative government electing to put the onus on the private sector and avoid a public legislative smackdown - and a particularly charged on over the evils of pornography - this has produced a situation where there is a frightening lack of technical and peer scrutiny of the mechanisms being employed.
Cory Doctorow points out that many "adult content" filters include gambling and dating sites; crowd-sourced content sites like Livejournal are included in some filters and not others; and finally that the internet is simply too damn big and constantly evolving for any filter to be kept accurate and up-to-date. A US 2003 investigation found 78-85% of sites included on adult content filters for schools and libraries were miscategorised, with tens of thousands of child-safe educational resources blocked by mistake. He writes that parents who choose not to opt out their families of the default filter
... are in for a nasty shock: first, when their kids (inevitably) discover the vast quantities of actual, no-fooling pornography that the filter misses; and second, when they themselves discover that their internet is now substantially broken, with equally vast swathes of legitimate material blocked.
Quite aside from the dodgy religious agenda and bad research behind these proposals and the technical problems with their implementation, they pose a massive threat to the sexual education the internet has facilitated over the last two decades. How many of us first came to an understanding and acceptance of our kink online? Members of the pre-internet generation often tell me that they envy those of us who grew up with access to the internet, who were able to inform, educate and reassure ourselves about our sexualities before getting trapped in vanilla marriages or spending years thinking our tastes meant we were sinful, freakish or mad.
Any top-down attempt to control public access to information is regressive; and no censorship of this kind has ever survived in the long term. We need to fight against the mindset that thinks this is a fair price to pay to prevent children from encountering sex too soon, and which thinks that blanket governmental controls can replace attentive parenting and common sense.