opinion

Dispatch From the U.K.: Britain Aims to Take More Control of Web

Jerry Barnett

A 15-year old cartoon shows Uncle Sam holding a box labeled, “Control of Internet Speech.” The “corporate media” asks “how would you like this wrapped?” The two wrapping options are “Anti-terrorism” and “Protect kids.” Porn and terrorism: both tried and trusted ways to frighten the masses into surrendering liberty.

The trouble with good satire is that it’s often too close to the truth.

This industry, above all others, should understand the perils of state censorship. Most of all, an adult industry that agrees with its enemies that pornography is inherently harmful is doing itself, its customers and its long-term survival no favors whatsoever.

The British government has made two apparently unrelated announcements this year.

In April (buried in the middle of an election campaign), a Tory promise was made to block overseas adult sites that do not verify the ages of visitors as required by ATVOD regulations.

In May, it was revealed that the Prime Minister supports a censorship regime for blocking “extremist” content. Both announcements would involve empowering Ofcom (Britain’s powerful communications regulator and state TV censor) to draw up a blacklist of online services.

Both announcements are, effectively, promising the same thing: the creation of a state-backed Internet censor with the power to order ISPs to block specific sites and services. This would be an unprecedented step for a democratic state to take, and would end the era of free access to the Internet in the U.K.

So ATVOD’s age-verification regime is presented as a reasonable and proportionate measure, but is in fact a euphemism for introducing Internet censorship. Britain is almost the only country in Europe that sees a need for such a mechanism.

Furthermore, the U.S. Supreme Court determined long ago that age verification provides an obstacle that prevents adults accessing porn, and so is a form of censorship, and is therefore unconstitutional. This is why age verification in Britain can’t work without also closing our digital borders.

One needs to consider what is meant when the government talks about blocking adult content. Given that (under these proposals) ISPs would be fined for allowing access to sites that are “not suitable for minors,” the line would necessarily be drawn very broadly indeed.

While porn is invariably used as the excuse, the end result would be to block a far wider range of content. We know this because the existing optional ISP porn filters, introduced last year under pressure from David Cameron, actually block content ranging from support for self-harmers to drug information.

About one website in every five is blocked by these filters; understandably, most households have chosen to switch them off to the annoyance of the morality campaigners that campaigned for them.

This new blocking will be mandatory: users won’t have the luxury of switching it off (at least, not without using a VPN or the Tor network).

Ironically, all this comes at a time when the British public’s attitudes towards sex and porn are more liberal than ever.

There’s little evidence that the zeal of the government to protect young minds matches any anti-porn mood among the general public. This moral panic comes on the back of decades of research showing a strong negative correlation between porn accessibility and sexual violence — in other words, easily available porn is linked to a steep decline in rape.

Even Ofcom’s own research, carried out on behalf of the government, accepts there’s more evidence that porn reduces sexual violence than increases it.

Given what is at stake, it’s disappointing that some players in the adult industry have lent their weight to ATVOD’s pro-censorship lobbying efforts.

A handful of businesses, most notably Television X and ICM Registry, have been openly supportive of the U.K. government’s plans for age verification (and the inevitable site blocking required to implement it).

ICM Registry also has been reported to be implementing age verification itself, although it is unclear what this means in practice for a domain registry.

This is a sharp break from ICM Registry’s early, uncompromising anti-censorship stance, when it employed the First Amendment lawyer Robert Corn-Revere. I contacted Corn-Revere to ask about the company’s change in policy, and he told me he has had no involvement with either ICM Registry or IFFOR for the past two years, and added: “To whatever extent ICM and/or IFFOR have endorsed age-verification rules, I am unaware of it and would not agree with it.”

We know that existing mechanisms for child protection are mature, tried and tested.

The adult industry itself has been instrumental in developing tools like the RTA label for this very purpose. These systems allow parents to control what their children access, without any need for the immense incursion into online freedom being proposed by ATVOD and its cheerleaders.

Industry support for state censorship may be disappointing, but isn’t so surprising: the availability of free and user-generated content has driven down sales, and slashed industry profits.

Those people helping ATVOD make its case for censorship do so based (in part at least) on the hope that the proposed law would pull the rug from under the tube sites.

Any business owner offered government help to eliminate his competitors would be sorely tempted to accept. But the creation of a British state-backed Internet censor is far too high a price to pay in exchange for a dreamy return to the good old days where people actually paid for porn.

This industry, above all others, should understand the perils of state censorship. Most of all, an adult industry that agrees with its enemies that pornography is inherently harmful is doing itself, its customers and its long-term survival no favors whatsoever.

Jerry Barnett is the founder and CEO of Sex & Censorship. In addition to his campaigning work, he is a technologist with almost three decades of Internet experience, an entrepreneur, writer and photographer. He is currently writing a book, “Porn Panic,” on porn, moral panics and censorship in the U.K.

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