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.
Illegal 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
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 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.