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U.K. Attacks Extreme Porn

John Ozimek
Recently, the U.K. has begun a clampdown on "extreme porn." Meanwhile, across the rest of Europe, various countries are limbering up to clamp down on adults viewing what they deem to be unsavory material on the Internet.

Let's start with the horrors of "extreme" porn. Last year, following half-a-debate in Parliament, the U.K. government passed laws that will make it illegal not merely to publish but to possess material deemed to be pornographic and extreme.

It was launched off the back of a particularly gruesome murder, perpetrated by musician and part-time salesman Graham Coutts. His long-held interest in extreme forms of bondage included a very particular taste for "asphyxiation" play. At trial, however, his claim to have killed schoolteacher Jane Longhurst accidentally during consensual play was decisively rejected, and he is now serving a life sentence for murder.

Despite Coutts having a long-term (pre-Internet) interest in this fetish, prosecutors and politicians seized upon his admission to feeding his fantasies by looking at violent porn on the Internet. Add to this the government's increasing frustration at its inability to regulate the flow of Internet porn into the U.K., and the idea of criminalizing possession was born.

Starting on Jan. 26, anyone in England, Wales or Northern Ireland caught accessing extreme websites and downloading pictures could face up to three years in jail. Officially, the scope of this new law is intended to be very limited, aimed only at catching 30 or so individuals a year and targeted at the most abhorrent material.

Lawyers who have studied the fine print suggest it could cast its net far wider. To meet the criteria set by this law, material must "realistically" depict either "serious injury to breast, genitals or anus" or a "life-threatening" situation. As critics have observed, this could include a great deal of kinky sex. More to the point, images will be criminalized irrespective of whether they actually took place, thus absolving the authorities from the chore of having to decide whether a picture "really" happened or just features good acting and special effects.

Early analysis of the government's case for this law suggested that as much as 80 percent of the material now criminalized could sit on sites that are perfectly legal in the U. S. and regulated by 18 USC 2257. A particular target for those backing this law was U.S.-hosted necrobabes.com, which already has survived a number of attempts by the U.K. government to have it closed down.

80 percent is probably an over-estimate because campaigners against the law later realized that it was also going to clamp down on a great deal of amateur photography.

The effect of this law is hotly debated. Given that up to 40 percent of British citizens claim to have at least occasionally flirted with mild bondage play, the idea that 30 prosecutions a year could have any serious effect on the consumption habits of the regular surfer seems fanciful. Two quite contradictory things seem to be happening.

In the short term, this law may well have a sharp chilling effect on those in the know: the active members of the U.K.'s BDSM community. Overseas website owners who notice a dip in their U.K. traffic during February might have reason to blame legislation. However, unless this law is heavily policed — and signs are it won't be — the longer-term effect is likely to be the opposite.

People will return to their old viewing habits, and government might yet rue the day it created an increasingly politicized BDSM lobby, which has united kinksters with politicians, artists and the goth/horror community (the law also criminalizes images of necrophilia). This effect already is being felt in Scotland, which was not included in the original legislation, as proposals to create an even more wide-ranging law are running into opposition from senior politicians, media and lawyers.

In fact this is just one prong of the U.K.'s attack on material it would prefer was not downloaded. The second prong lies with its Internet Watch Foundation, which has had much success in blocking access to overseas child porn websites.

This model now is being adapted to a greater or lesser degree by other European countries. Denmark acknowledges having put in place a block list. So too do Finland, Norway and Romania. Far more significant is a recent announcement by Germany that it will introduce compulsory Internet censorship starting in March.

The censorship scheme will reduce access to child pornography as ISPs block access to a list of sites provided by the government. This follows moves by Germany last year to criminalize sales and distribution of content depicting "adult actors who show a youthful appearance," leading Hustler Europe, part of the Larry Flynt group and publisher of Barely Legal, to file a complaint with the Federal Constitutional Court.

Has Europe been overrun by the Internet censors? Not quite. The main issue, on which there is broad agreement, is the need to deal with child porn. However, there is no unified approach, and there is an ongoing debate about exactly who or what counts as a "child." Add to that a desire by some governments to broaden the range of banned material beyond the obviously pedophile, and you have a recipe for confusion

A number of countries, like Belgium, are solving this issue by granting extraordinary powers to police or extrajudicial bodies to put up blocks without legal due process. In the U.K., the IWF neither publishes the list of blocked sites nor informs site owners that they have been blocked.

Just as well, perhaps, because in almost every case where secret block lists have been leaked to the public, they have turned out to contain sites that had nothing to do with porn: a forklift manufacturer in Denmark, an anti-censorship site in Czechoslovakia. But those advocating secrecy do have a point because the block lists almost certainly would prove irresistible in some quarters.

As for the legal definition of a child, that too is a fair debate: Is it an image that looks like a child or one that is a child, even if the individual appears older? Problems start when justified claims for the censorship of pornography featuring children collide with precautionary policing: censoring adult material just in case children stumble across it.

2009 without a doubt is going to be the year of the Internet censor in Europe. It begins with a series of blocks and bans that are uncoordinated, contradictory and in some cases impractical. Watch this space, and expect European net censorship to become slicker, more effective and more consistent as the year goes on.

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