Sex and Censorship: U.K.’s Porn Filter Plan

Jerry Barnett

There are a number of differences between British and American attitudes towards free speech, which have governed the different cultures of the porn industry on each side of the Atlantic. In the U.S., with its powerful religious right, making porn has always had a political edge since its early days. The U.S. industry knows that every new Republican President will come up with new attacks, new ways to attack sexual freedoms. On the other hand, America has the First Amendment; a powerful weapon with which to defend against were moralistic attacks on sexual expression.

The U.K. has no First Amendment. There is no firm line in the sand, and the bounds of free speech are elastic. British people can already be arrested for sending “malicious” tweets that would constitute protected speech in the U.S.

I have deliberately set up Sex & Censorship as a non-industry body. This is about far more than porn.

Hardcore porn was effectively illegal in the U.K. until 2000, although it thrived underground. Once finally legalized, a legitimate industry grew quickly. Unlike the American industry, there was little overlap between porn and politics. There were no overt attacks on the industry from pro-censorship religious or feminist groups, and its participants saw it as a business or a lifestyle rather than any expression of rebellion.

I have been involved with Internet technology since the 1980s, with Internet porn since the mid-1990s and ran my own video-on-demand site, Strictly Broadband, since 2004. The U.K. has, for decades, had tight censorship of video, DVD and TV, and the Internet blew a hole in political control of free expression. The free speech provided by the Internet was a threat to vested interests. I have long seen it as inevitable that, sooner or later, authoritarians would move to close this hole.

I joined the industry trade association AITA around 2005. A couple of years after that I joined the committee, and in 2011 I became chairman. Within the industry, there was no great interest in free speech issues, other than those directly affecting sales. Having never experienced the kind of attacks that the U.S. industry was used to, there was no general feeling that sooner or later, an attack was coming.

Indeed, the U.K. industry has, in some ways, been protected from overseas competition by U.K. censorship laws, and was in little mood to mount a general defense of free speech. A little while before I joined AITA, it had actually mounted a campaign against the introduction of hardcore porn on TV, on the basis that it could harm DVD sales.

In 2011, I was invited to attend a parliamentary inquiry run by the right-wing Conservative MP Claire Perry, on behalf of the industry. The inquiry was to discuss the “protection of children online,” and was clearly being used to set the scene for the introduction of an Internet filtering mechanism. This inquiry was an eye-opener for me; not only was I one of the only witnesses defending sexual expression, but there were very few people defending any type of free expression. If this inquiry had taken place in the U.S., the ACLU would likely have been there. Where was the British ACLU? Where was the free speech lobby? It turned out to be almost non-existent, at least when it came to defending sexual expression. The defence of an open Internet virtually came down to myself and a representative of a small campaigning body, the Open Rights Group. I began to fear, not just for the adult industry, but for free speech in this country.

Inspired by the FSC and Australia’s Eros, I decided to try to transform AITA from a trade body into a campaigning organization. It is fair to say that many AITA members were supportive, and the committee (all unpaid volunteers) worked hard to represent the industry. However, much of the industry was uninterested in campaigns related to political issues.

AITA struggled to attract paying members, and could not persuade the larger companies to contribute. One DVD distributor even expressed the view that Internet filtering would be good for his business, so AITA should not oppose it.

When the new regulator ATVOD began to attack websites based in the U.K. (including my own) we tried to mount a defence, but without resources, could do little. The regulator set out to make an example of my business, perhaps because I was the loudest voice challenging the new rules. The industry only began to realise the scale of the threat once I had been forced to close my business, and was named in the press (along with Playboy TV) as “reckless.” This fear campaign worked, and small sites, especially those run by individual models and small producers, began to close. I stepped down from the AITA committee, and the organisation closed a few months later.

With my business closed, I took the opportunity to relax for a while, and enjoy time with my new son. I also began work on a book about porn and censorship. The complacency around free speech did not just afflict the adult industry, but also wider British society. Unlike many other Western societies, the British have not had to fight for free speech for generations. We have forgotten how important it is, and that it needs defending. From my viewpoint within the industry, I had seen the writing on the wall, and I knew that soon, the censorship bureaucracy would be attacking far more than pornography.

Earlier this year, I set up the foundations of the Sex & Censorship campaign. This came at the right moment: in July, the government announced plans for Internet filtering. I was inundated with requests for media interviews, and carried out 13 on the day of the filter announcement alone.

Although this was headlined as a “porn filter,” the plans already go way beyond porn. And we all know that, once introduced, the filter can only grow broader, blocking all sorts of contentious material. For the first time, many people have woken up to the dangers of censorship, and realised how close we are to losing online free speech we have taken for granted for years.

I have deliberately set up Sex & Censorship as a non-industry body. This is about far more than porn. But I hope that now, the British industry will offer more support to this campaign than it previously provided to AITA. And this does not just affect the U.K. industry: as our Internet access becomes increasingly restricted, online adult businesses will lose many of their British customers, wherever they happen to be based. There is also a justifiable fear that, if Britain adopts filtering technology, other countries will follow.

The aims of the campaign are as follows:

  • Raise media and public awareness about censorship in the U.K.
  • Oppose the Internet filter and other attempts at online censorship.
  • Counter the growing “sexualisation” moral panic, and try to ensure that sex-positive, anti-censorship voices are featured in the mainstream media.
  • Grow support among journalists, politicians and the public.
  • Help coordinate models, performers and others in the sex entertainment industries, to counter-protest the current wave of protests against porn and lads’ mags, and defend their rights to earn money this way.

Already, the campaign has received good support from industry figures, here at home as well as internationally. A number of performers are promoting the campaign online to their fans.

How can you help? Please contact me at jerry.barnett@gmail.com if you have resources to offer:

1) Use your social media to help promote our social media presence: @PornPanic on Twitter, and Facebook.com/SexAndCensorship
2) Do you have trade and customer mailing lists?
3) If you have publications, can you offer advertising and copy space?
4) And most important: financial support. I have self-funded the start-up of this campaign, and am effectively working unpaid for the industry (as we AITA committee members also did previously).

Thank you to those who have already offered support, including XBIZ World for publishing this piece.

It has taken the U.K. a long time to wake up to the threat of censorship, but we are well and truly awake. Now we have to catch up with those pro-censorship forces that have taken a huge head-start on us.

Jerry Barnett, who formerly ran a British adult streaming video business, is a civil liberties campaigner, particularly when it comes to sex and censorship. Barnett, a current member of the policy council for adult industry organization IFFOR, the International Foundation for Online Responsibility, also led the now-defunct AITA (Adult Industry Trade Association).

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