Why opt-in filters for "adult content" are misguided and dangerous

Posted at 23:16 on 17 Oct 2011 by Pandora / Blake

Tags: Anna Span, Brooke Magnanti, civil liberties, in the news, Kink activism, Politics, rant, Violet Blue

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.

Comments

[...] We gotta fight for our right for…pornography. (via Pandora Blake) [...]

I note the Tory party seem to have found a new mothers group to cosy up to since the founder of Mumsnet revealed that actually, they didn't really want a blanket ban on porn because their members did quite like it.

http://www.theregister.co.uk/2011/05/19/mumsnet_regulation/

Still, by all accounts this isn't the opt-in filter the PM wanted to scare us all with. Rather it's an agreement that all new customers will be asked if they want a porn filter and helped to set it up if they say yes. The checkbox will default to yes.

http://www.theregister.co.uk/2011/10/12/isps_refute_pron_restriction_claims/

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Fantastic and necessary post. Thank you, as always, for your eloquence and clear thinking about this issue.

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.

So much this.

I was able to avoid the vanilla marriage, but some kind of proper education about the diversity of sexuality, *and* about proper consent would have been so useful to me. I still resent the decade I spent in denial that I was raped when I was 19, because I still believed that only "no" meant "no", and I had been too drunk to even recognise that consent was an issue.

Growing up not fearing and feeling myself disgusting for so many things, very much including my kinkiness, would have been wonderful. I also wonder whether access to the internet's resources in my 'teens might have helped me to start dealing with being abused as a child quite a lot earlier. It certainly wouldn't have hurt.

Thanks for this courageous comment. Yes; it's not only teenagers of LGBT and kinky sexuality who stand to benefit from internet access, but everyone. The internet has provided more education on gender and race politics to me and my peers, more consciousness-raising, more political education than I ever got through the formal education system. One wonders if the articles linked in this post would be included on an "adult content" filter...

Not everyone is politicised by the internet, of course, but merely having access to conversation and interaction with people beyond one's social group is immeasurably valuable in terms of broadening our cultural horizons. And if social media starts to make it onto the blacklist, suddenly even that starts to be threatened.

Oy. It seems a small thing to worry over but ANY attempt to censor the internet worries me. The internet is the most liberating tool we have - the biggest threat to established power structures since the printing press. We should be expanding on that, not trying to restrict it.

Thanks for the awesome comment! I think it's worrying that we've seen this coming for nearly a year and it's gone ahead anyway. Perhaps even more worrying that many people would support the measures on the basis of the soundbite without actually being informed about the consequences or the realities of implementation.

Your point about the opportunity for ISPs to charge for maintaining the filters is well made. Plus, of course, this system will generate some nice useful databases, belonging entirely to the private sector, of users who have chosen to opt-in. What could possibly go wrong?!

The influence of far-right Christian groups in UK politics is subtle and insidious. Funding seminars, thinktanks; hosting conferences aimed at policy makers. The civil servants and MPs attending the events may not even realise the political affiliation of the organisation behind it.

I hope this proposal is halted too but I'm not sure what power the commons have to prevent it at this point. If it ends up being a corporate thing then the only way that people can vote is with their wallets. Which means raising enough awareness about the consequences... or simply waiting for the fallout and seeing if subscribers are satisfied with the service their ISPs are providing. But by then, the filters will be in place and the databases will already exist; I'd much rather see it never happen in the first place.

This is a great post about a subject that seems to be being slippped into our lives by a certain amount of stealth. The internet is a source of knowledge and information and it is up to the indivdual user to chose what they want to view, not the government or the internet providers, who of course love this idea as they see it as a way of making more revenue.

Soon they will be saying, oh well, managing this list and filters is costing us money so to opt-in you will have to pay a fee...oh to opt-out you will have to pay a fee too...win win for the internet provider!

As for the far right Christian American church, why the fuck are they being allowed to influence policy in the UK. We are NOT a far right orthodox nation, we are anglican and liberal traditionally low church. They need to take their relgious bigotry back to the USA and keep it there.

I hope this proposal falls flat on it's face to be honest. If I want to look at porn thats up to me, what my child has access too...is up to me too. As a responsible parent I don't need the government to help me find the off switch on their computer I am perfectly capable of doing it myself, thank you very much.

Mollyxxx

Ps...As you so rightly say as well, what is porn? Again, for me to decide not the governement or my internet providor.

Thanks for the awesome comment! I think it's worrying that we've seen this coming for nearly a year and it's gone ahead anyway. Perhaps even more worrying that many people would support the measures on the basis of the soundbite without actually being informed about the consequences or the realities of implementation.

Your point about the opportunity for ISPs to charge for maintaining the filters is well made. Plus, of course, this system will generate some nice useful databases, belonging entirely to the private sector, of users who have chosen to opt-in. What could possibly go wrong?!

The influence of far-right Christian groups in UK politics is subtle and insidious. Funding seminars, thinktanks; hosting conferences aimed at policy makers. The civil servants and MPs attending the events may not even realise the political affiliation of the organisation behind it.

I hope this proposal is halted too but I'm not sure what power the commons have to prevent it at this point. If it ends up being a corporate thing then the only way that people can vote is with their wallets. Which means raising enough awareness about the consequences... or simply waiting for the fallout and seeing if subscribers are satisfied with the service their ISPs are providing. But by then, the filters will be in place and the databases will already exist; I'd much rather see it never happen in the first place.

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