A month ago, Tory MP Claire Perry called for British ISPs to implement an "opt-in" system for internet pornography based on age verification, to prevent under 18s from looking at sexually explicit content online, because she believed that "British internet service providers should share the responsibility to keep our children safe." Fortunately for us, culture and communications minister Ed Vaizey disagreed. "We believe in an open, lightly regulated internet," he said. "The internet is by and large a force for good, it is central to our lives and to our economy and Government has to be wary about regulating or passing legislation." Mr Vaizey suggested that taking responsibility for what your children see online and how they respond to it is kind of what parenting is all about.
Fine. Except that yesterday, Ed Vaizey made a dramatic U-turn by inviting ISP giants such as BT, Talk Talk and Virgin Media to a meeting to discuss how they might implement such a system. "I think it is very important that it's the ISPs that come up with solutions to protect children," he said, in a dramatic reversal of his stance four weeks ago.
This is worrying stuff for a whole host of reasons.
Firstly, there's the practicalities of implementing the scheme:
The plan is to allow parents to 'opt out' of the sites and they will then be blocked at the source, rather than using conventional parental controls.
Adults who wish to view the material would have to choose to 'opt in'.
Following their decision, homeowners would then be able to choose what sites they receive in a cinema style guide, such as U for all ages, or 18 for adults.
Got that? Unlike cinema style age controls, this wouldn't be an individual decision, but a blanket one across a household. In short, it falls into the same trap as the Digital Economy Act. In order to prevent their children from viewing porn, parents would have to give it up themselves. Adults living at home? Forget it - you're under your parents' roof, you follow their rules. Households of shared adults, like most Londoners who don't cohabit with a partner? You'd better have a good relationship with the housemate whose name is on the broadband account. What about students living in halls? Or adults who live with their landlords?
Either the system will impede the freedoms of adults across the country, or it will be so restrictive that no-one will use it. As Tom Scott writes for the Guardian
Any "think-of-the-children" internet filter has a fundamental problem: if it's effective enough to actually block adult content, it will also be irritating enough that almost everyone will turn it off.The rest of the article is well worth reading
An effective filter would have to censor Flickr, which has a large amount of adult imagery. It has to censor every blogging platform: Tumblr, for example, has a whole swathe of porn blogs, and there are untold numbers of sex bloggers writing reams of explicit text. And it has to censor YouTube, particularly if 4chan decide to flood it with porn again. Facebook could probably be let through, thanks to its strong filtering policies although right now, most mobile providers block it for under-18s anyway.
If an adult content filter allows those sites through, it fails. And if it blocks those sites, then hardly anyone will use it and it fails.
, picking up on a number of reasons such an approach would be impossible to implement effectively.
Secondly, the 'research' and 'studies' cited to justify this idea are problematic at best. Violet Blue reveals how the study from Psychologies magazine quoted in most news repots was in fact conducted on 14-16 year olds from a single North London school
- hardly comprehensive data - and Ms Naughty
digs into Safer Media, the Christian group who believe whole swathes of modern media are "harmful", and from whom Ms Perry gets her "compelling evidence" that porn is damaging to under-18s.
I've written before
about the myth that accessing pornography has a detrimental effect on young people and society in general. Bish Training
, a sex ed resource for young people, summarises:
Even the briefest look on Google Scholar will show you that there is not a lot of rigorous academic research in this area. Arguments about porn, such as arguments about sexualisation, are usually values rather than evidence based. There is certainly no consensus in the academic world about young people and porn.
I would encourage you to read what I believe (Im a practitioner, not an academic) to be the most thorough recent paper http://www.springerlink.com/content/c1k7r32gj9q72248/ It points out the lack of evidence of the extent of porn consumption and harms from previous research.
So much for evidence-based policy making. Claire Perry is quick to claim that
"We are not coming at this from an anti-porn perspective," but the sketchy nature of the research backing up her proposals suggests that this is an ideological move. Her next remark clarifies this ideology: "We just want to make sure children aren't stumbling across things we don't want them to see." This isn't about the fear of children's sexuality: it's about an angry controlling impulse on the part of parents who cannot bear that their children might like anything they don't like, or have access to anything they don't approve of. To people like this the internet represents an enormous ideological threat. A 'nanny state' approach is the only way they can shut down freedom of speech and information for those who disagree with them.
Whose ideology will inform this proposed 'blacklist' of forbidden sites to be referenced by ISPs? (And who will maintain the list of 'opted-in' households? Bet Wikileaks would love the chance to share that.) 'Hardcore' pictures and video - okay. Text? Usenet groups? Fanfic? Chatrooms? Any site posting user-generated content would find itself at risk unless it implemented strict moderation policies. What about humourous sites which include obscene language? Or sex education sites like the excellent Bish Training
, which includes guidance for young people about porn? Queer and trans activists are concerned that any site providing support and information about LGBT issues will be blocked - the mental health effects of which on young people could be far more devastating than those claimed to be caused by porn.
And then there's the civil liberties implications. Once a Great Firewall exists, what's to stop its expansion to include other controversial sites
, or anything the government disapproves of? Maybe Maimed has recently argued
that the censorship surrounding Wikileaks has always existed around sex. Once porn is banned from the internet, you can bet that other problematic content would find itself caught in the same net.
Every week, I get letters from kinky people who are grateful to me for helping them feel they are not alone. I hear from mature individuals who are only just beginning to discover the vocabulary to think about their desires, or to start to come to terms with them. I am so lucky, they tell me, to have become aware of my sexuality so young, to have accepted it and be able to find so much joy in it, and help other people make peace with themselves. Alongside the self-indulgence of creative work that turns me on, that's why I do what I do, and I wouldn't have been able to do it without the internet.
I started having sex about the same time as I got online - when I was 13. By the time I was 15 I'd started using the internet to explore sexuality and kink in a big way, but it didn't take over my life - I had many other hobbies and interests, and most of my online time was taken up with teaching myself HTML and design and creating vanity sites. I had my first serious play relationship when I was 16, which was very informed by the BDSM community I'd discovered online, and I met Tom when I was 19. I am enormously lucky to have been able to streamline my sexual development with the aid of online resources and support. If I hadn't been able to access sexual content at home, I would have made different, less well-informed choices; I might have made some very bad decisions; and I certainly wouldn't have reached a point where I could offer support and reassurance to others by my early twenties.
If you're worried about what your child is looking at online, either install some of the parental control software which is readily available, or sit with them while they browse the internet. Either way, talk to them about what they're seeing; teach them about staying safe online
, give them the tools they need to question and critique
what they encounter. Unlike our legislators, most UK kids are internet natives - they will easily be able to get around any controls we attempt to put in place. Trying to prevent them from accessing porn will simply increase its appeal. Ultimately, the responsibility for what we look at and how we respond to it is ours, and it falls to parents to teach that responsibility to their children, rather than dumping the hardest and most important parts of parenting onto corporations or the state.
All these things remain true, and given my audience I have little doubt that most of my readers will agree with me. Perhaps I didn't even need to write this, since today senior officials from the ISPs themselves
have condemned the proposals as unworkable. But this is not the first time this idea has surfaced, and I doubt it will be the last. Thanks to the anti-porn agenda of over-anxious mothers, we have already seen our government ban certain types of consensual porn
entirely. When it comes to freedom of sexual expression, we cannot trust our legislators, and we must remain vigilant. I'm willing to bet that the idea of a filtered web will come back, and when it does, we need to be ready with our arguments as to why it will not work, and cannot ever be accepted.
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