I start this article with a moment of honesty: I’ve watched online pornography.
Chances are that you, the reader, have also watched online pornography at some time or another. Of the readers of this article that have watched online pornography, the vast majority likely consider themselves to be relatively healthy in mind, body, and sexuality i.e. they pose no danger to themselves, to others, or to society as a result of watching online porn. Finally, of these same readers, a good proportion of will watch online porn again in the future.
But does that make you a bad person?
On July 22nd 2013, the prime minister of the United Kingdom, David Cameron, announced new plans to tackle the distribution of child sex abuse material online and to protect children from the vast amounts of pornographic imagery found on the internet. These plans come in response to the slew of high profile child abuse scandals across Britain in recent years.
The first challenge is criminal: and that is the proliferation and accessibility of child abuse images on the internet. The second challenge is cultural: the fact that many children are viewing online pornography and other damaging material at a very young age and that the nature of that pornography is so extreme, it is distorting their view of sex and relationships.
Let me be clear.
These challenges are very distinct and very different.
In one we’re talking about illegal material, the other legal material that is being viewed by those who are underage.
But both these challenges have something in common.
They are about how our collective lack of action on the internet has led to harmful – and in some cases truly dreadful — consequences for children.
Taken from the draft of David Cameron’s speech as published on gov.uk.
Cameron’s plans, which are expected to take full effect early 2014, will see pornography as a whole affected in three ways:
- The UK’s most used search engines (Google, Bing and Yahoo) will no longer display search results from terms related to child pornography
- The possession of pornography depicting rape will be illegal in England and Wales, be that online of offline
- Online pornography of all kinds will be actively blocked by internet service providers
While there’s certainly no argument against eradicating child pornography from the internet, there are legitimate concerns to be had over the combination of the second two changes to the government’s stance on pornography.
To clarify, the six biggest UK internet service providers (ISPs) will be responsible for the blocking of online porn in a similar fashion to how torrent hosting site The Pirate Bay is blocked in the UK, and will thus affect approximately 95% of UK-based internet users. Unlike the situation with The Pirate Bay, however, customers of British ISPs will be asked whether or not they wish to “opt out” of the filtering scheme, with the filter being activated by default.
Now ask yourself, stripped of the anonymity of the internet, could you really bring yourself to contact your ISP and ask for the removal of the pornography filter? If the answer is “yes”, then listen to Cameron as he subtly vilifies you, the humble porn watcher, as the indirect cause of so many supposedly corroded childhoods. Still feel up to the challenge of calling your ISP?
If the partial political censorship doesn’t get you, the social censorship will.
But what’s really wrong with this picture? Is it that the British government is “punishing” a large proportion if its pornography watching citizens for the heinous crimes of the few? Is it that this one-size-fits-all solution takes the responsibility of children’s online safety away from parents and schools and pushes it onto ISPs? What about the fact that this news comes only four months after the same government rejected plans to make sex education compulsory across British schools? These are all topics that need to be explored and discussed, but the real trouble stems from the following, simple question:
What is pornography?
At the time of writing, the United Kingdom has no strict, legal definition of pornography. The possession of “extreme pornography” has been a criminal offense since 2009 under the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 — with “extreme pornography” being defined as material intended to be sexually arousing that is “grossly offensive, disgusting or otherwise of an obscene character”. However this act does not cover the depiction of rape in porn.
So if “pornography” has no legal definition in the UK and “porn depicting rape” still requires definition, how will it be decided as to what is blocked by ISPs, what isn’t blocked, and what is strictly illegal? And what will happen if/when this quasi-censorship doesn’t achieve the desired results?
Followers of the vastly expanding “geek culture” are no strangers to the attempts of particular politicians of particular governments using videogames, film, comic books, and more as scapegoats for teenage violence. What if these very same forms of media are targeted in the UK, but are instead blamed for illegal sexual acts?
What if the upcoming rules were bent and films such as Straw Dogs and The Last House on the Left were banned once again? Would films The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Deliverance be removed from internet streaming services, and would digital copies of each film’s original novel be removed from online book shops? To take this train of thought one, exaggerated step further, what of literary classics such as Lolita, Titus Andronicus, and The Rape of Lucrece?
Many of those living off the coasts of the British Isles would likely be sympathetic to residents of this hypothetical, internet censorship-bound United Kingdom. Many more probably wouldn’t care. But what happens when those in power of UK’s Western allies nod in agreement to the British government’s control of the internet? What if they want in?
Another moment of honesty: I love a good conspiracy theory.
Likewise, I’m enthralled by the idea that the British government is introducing the concept of internet censorship to its citizens as part of a seemingly noble endeavor, only to slowly and subtly increase its grip on the internet over time.
However, the optimist in me says that everything should turn out okay as long as we continue to have these types of discussions – open discussions about how we use the internet, what we can do to keep the vulnerable safe while online, and about internet censorship in general. After all, open discussions such as the article you are reading can only be achieved with an equally open and free internet.