The PM delivered a speech today at the NSPCC headquarters and promised to crack down on online pornography, for the purpose of making the internet a safe place for children. (The full speech can be read here). He said that online pornography should be blocked by default and has warned that new laws will only allow access to pornographic sites if people demand it, by opting in. ‘Family-friendly filters’ would be automatically selected for all new customers by the end of the year (an automatic opting out). For existing customers, however, they will be contacted by their internet provider and have to awkwardly tell them that they want access to adult material.
The main crux of Cameron’s speech is that online pornography corrupts and poisons the minds of children – in his own words, it is having an impact on the “innocence of our children” and it “is corroding childhood”. He goes on to say that he is not trying to “moralise” or “scaremonger” anyone, but in actual fact, that is exactly what he is doing.
In addition to a country-wide, default ban on online pornography, the PM wants to make the possession of material depicting not only rape but simulated rape, a criminal offence. Scotland has enforced this kind of legislation, with the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act (2008) and Cameron maintains that England and Wales should follow suit. Currently, because of a loophole, possession of such material is not offence south of the border.
Readers should be reminded of the inconsistency and double standard of making illegal pornographic material that includes simulated rape. Of course, if there is pornography that depicts non-consenting adults or violence against women (or men for that matter), then those who commissioned this material should be rightly punished. But if we are to ban certain material, which depicts simulated rape between consenting adults, should we not also ban films which depict simulated rape or violence against women? How about music with lyrics referring to rape, violence against women and other material which the PM deems worthy of censorship? No one is saying that this material is not extreme or distasteful, but the PM’s moral judgements should not be allowed to influence public policy.
Women’s groups, such as the End Violence Against Women Coalition and The Rape Crisis group, fully support Cameron’s decision on this matter. Fiona Elvines, of Rape Crisis South London, has said that this ban will help to prevent rape and violence against women. However, for this argument to be valid, certain assumptions have to be made: firstly, that this ban will be effective in preventing access to illegal material; secondly, that a default ban on pornography is effective in decreasing cases of rape and violence against women, and, thirdly, that it is worth sacrificing our freedom to access online material for the possibility of reducing crime.
In my honest opinion, none of these assumptions can be justified. Illicit material will just get pushed further underground, censorship is not an effective way to reduce crime, and censorship is immoral. There is a similar situation with drug laws – we can agree that drugs can be harmful, but making them illegal is both an ineffective and immoral way to try and minimise these harms. It is worth noting that Silk Road, the online market for illegal drugs, is completely outside of government regulation. All transactions are anonymous and untraceable, and the site cannot be accessed through Google, so there’s not much the government can do about it. Would it not be worse if child abuse imagery became available on an online black market like Silk Road, where those providing and using the material were anonymous? Furthermore, since anonymity can also be achieved by using proxy servers (where you can search for anything with a hidden IP address), it would not be difficult for a computer savvy kid to make use of it.
As part of Cameron’s crusade against online pornography, he suggested that internet search terms which are “horrific” and “abhorrent” (what his objective definition of “horrific” or “abhorrent” is, I do not know) should be “blacklisted”. These powers would be in the hands of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP). Anyone searching for this particular brand of “horrific” and “abhorrent” pornography would receive no results in any search engine. So far the biggest internet providers have agreed to Cameron’s demands, meaning that this new legislation would apply to 95% of all homes.
Tory MP Claire Perry, who is also the PM’s adviser on the sexualisation and commercialisation of children, said that we need these filters to prevent real instances of child abuse and violence against children. She referred to the case of the schoolgirls, April Jones and Tia Sharp, whose killers accessed legal pornography before accessing images of child abuse. Using this example, however, assumes that legal pornography was somehow responsible for the horrible and evil actions of these killers. Material depicting child abuse should be banned since it involves the worst actions of a criminal nature. But to restrict all adults from accessing material for the sake that it might prevent very extreme and rare cases of violence is unjust. Is Claire Perry not also worried that abuse, rape and violence expressed in films and music could contribute to abuse, rape and violence in real life? It is hypocrisy once again.
Perhaps Cameron’s intentions are noble. Despite his good-natured intentions to crack down on child abuse imagery, the effect of this enforcement would be censorship, plain and simple. There are already steps that parents can take to prevent their children from accessing pornographic material, such as child lock programs. In any case, if we look at all other forms of media – national newspapers, magazines, films, music, advertising and television – there is obvious sexual and erotic imagery present. While such imagery may not be as extreme as the material Cameron is referring to, could he not also argue that this more prevalent material is also damaging to the ‘innocence’ of a child’s mind? To give the government this power of censorship and control of the internet is extremely risky (they could justify other internet crackdowns in the future), not to mention an actual violation our civil liberties. Furthermore, why should responsible, law-abiding adults be punished for the illegal actions of other individuals?
A useful debate, which can inform people’s opinions on this issue, took place in 2009 between John Beyer (who argued for stricter regulations on pornography) and Julian Petley (who argued against ‘obscenity’ being used as a guideline for banning material). Petley argues that only material which involves actual harm to the participants should be banned. He also makes the point that censorship will not resolve the underlying problem with obscene pornography. What we need is better sex education at a younger age. Parents should also take more responsibility and be more involved in what their children have access to. It is dangerous to put this control in the hands of a nanny-state government.
Jim Killock, executive director of Open Rights Group, which defends online freedoms, told the BBC that it would be more beneficial to increase funding for policing of the criminals responsible for the production and distribution of child abuse imagery. Jim Killock has recently discovered new information from some internet service providers, suggesting that the UK’s ‘porn block’ will block more than hardcore pornography. Other material which will be filtered includes violent material, pro-anorexia websites, suicide-related websites, extremist-related websites, smoking and alcohol-related websites, and others.