Iceland recently made headlines with the latest project on its allegedly progressive agenda: a nation-wide ban on pornography. No stranger to proscribing activities related to commercializing sex, Iceland has already passed laws banning printed pornography, prostitution and stripping, and has done so all in the name of feminism. Rattling off the standard laundry list of the evils of porn, the Icelandic Parliament noticeably lingered on the “damaging effects” adult material has on the children who view it and the women who participate in it. Iceland’s Office of the Interior Minister defended the ban by stating that Icelandic citizens deserve to live and develop in a non-violent environment, therefore, the resulting law is “not anti-sex, but anti-violence.” What’s potentially more concerning is that this feminist backlash against commercial sexualization is gaining serious momentum throughout Europe, as evidenced by the European Union’s recent parliamentary vote on a blanket pornography ban. Taking a page from the Nordic view on feminism, the EU claims the ban will foster gender equality and combat sexual stereotypes by sanctioning individuals and businesses “promoting the sexualization of girls.” With Parliament disclosing very little about the potential ban, most Europeans are looking to the recent path blazed by Iceland for some guidance on what’s to come.* So what is the likelihood of Iceland being the first democratic state to successfully ban pornography? The answer to that question probably depends on your definition of success…
Given that Iceland is expected to implement similar blocking filters to those used in China and Iran, it stands to reason that Iceland would enjoy comparable success in restricting online content. However, the environmental and temporal differences between Iceland’s efforts and that of middle and far east authoritarian regimes, shouldn’t be so easily dismissed. Countries like China and North Korea limited citizens’ access to online content, but such restrictions have been in effect practically since the Internet’s inception. Any armchair psychologist will tell you – and any parent of a toddler will confirm – it’s human nature to want what you can’t have. And if whatever you can’t have, is something that was in your possession but was taken from you, well that ups the ante even more. Like most citizens across the globe, Iceland’s people have had unfettered access to online adult material. To put it bluntly, it doesn’t matter how inherently progressive a country is, when you confiscate a piece of personal autonomy, there’s bound to be consequences.
Even if the Icelandic government seamlessly weathers whatever discontent that’s thrown its way, there’s still the matter of enforcement. Logistically speaking, Iceland will employ filters barring citizens from accessing flagged websites, and fire walls prohibiting Icelandic credit cards from purchasing adult content. But what about the tangible transport of digital pornography? Streaming, downloading and cloud access aren’t the only ways to retrieve digital content. What’s stopping someone located in another jurisdiction from entering Iceland’s borders with a pornographic DVD? With so many vehicles capable of transporting digital content, common sense says that it would be impossible to inspect each and every tablet, flash drive, laptop, and Smartphone that crosses Iceland’s borders. As long as there’s been contraband, people have been smuggling contraband – the digitization of such contraband has only made it that much easier.
The ability to control infiltration of the banned content leads directly to the next hurdle – the black market. We live in the Internet Age; every technological restriction is met with a response circumventing that restriction. Whether it’s a scrubbing tool used to mask IP address identification or software that scrambles collected geo-location location, there are countless techniques enabling the average Internet user to evade government-imposed limitations.
Without getting too high up on the First Amendment soap-box, this type of regulation tends to invoke the constitutional scholar in all of us. If Iceland wants to completely ban pornography, exactly what kind of material is considered “pornography”? Without careful and meticulous drafting, any such law will inevitably encompass content as innocuous as the mere display of genitals. Some reports say that the ban would only include “violent or degrading content.” As admirable as that is, we’re still left with the subjectivity surrounding the definitions of “violent” or “degrading.” Another variable to throw into the mix in determining what would constitute pornography is the intended purpose of the material in question. Specifically, was the content created for private consumption or commercial use? If Iceland’s chief concern is to prevent the commercialized sexualization of women and children, logically, only material disseminated commercially would violate the ban and any application of the law beyond that specific scope would be a flagrant infringement on privacy rights. Given the widespread creation and sharing of private erotica, a substantial amount of pornographic material would presumably be unaffected by the legislation.
In a very short time, Iceland will undoubtedly find itself at the age-old prohibition impasse, asking which holds more clout: a government imposed ban or the tenacity of those looking to circumvent that ban? As shown with most government-sanctioned goods or services, a black market develops; those participating eventually monopolize the marketplace; a consistent profit is generated; and ultimately standard supply and demand principles are used to exploit and perpetuate a marketplace devoid of legislative supervision. Government-imposed prohibitions might change behavior, but a behavioral change does not prove that the problem was solved; only that it has been forced underground. On that note, one must question whether the “problem” existed in the first place. One person’s degrading porn, is another’s…you know the rest. Ultimately, Iceland is unlikely to become a porn free zone irrespective of the pending legislation. If history has taught us anything, it’s if there’s a will, there’s a way.
*As this post went to press, the EU Parliament voted against the anti-porn proposal due to censorship concerns: “Language that would ban online pornography has been dropped from a report approved by the European Parliament.”