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Why UK Porn Censorship Is a Terrible Idea

Douglas Crawford

Douglas Crawford

December 6, 2016

Hot on the heels of introducing the Investigatory Powers Bill, “one of the most extreme surveillance laws ever passed in a democracy,” the UK government now wants to censor online porn.

The headline amendment to the upcoming Digital Economy Bill is the proposed introduction of mandatory 18+ age verification checks for pornographic websites. Public debate has primarily centered on whether such age verification checks are appropriate in the first place (86% of respondents in a recent ICBP poll thought they were).

The debate has also considered whether the move is at all practical, given the international nature of the internet. Under the proposals, the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) will be given the power to order UK ISPs to block websites anywhere in the world that do not comply the law’s age verification requirements.

This all very well, but readily available technologies such as VPNs make it trivially easy to evade such requirements by allowing users to geo-spoof their location to another country.

Blanket Censorship of Legal Content

More worrying, however, is a lesser-known amendment to the new law. This allows the BBFC to block websites that feature “non-conventional” sex acts prohibited for commercial sale in the UK. According to the BBFC’s current guidelines (.pdf), this includes pictures and videos of female ejaculation, face sitting, menstrual blood, and sex in public.

In other words, UK adults will be prevented from viewing perfectly legal sex acts between consenting adults. This is content that is legal and increasingly normalized throughout the rest of the “free world.”

And it has nothing to do with “protecting the kids.” That is what the age verification checks are for. This amendment is solely about the government imposing its own puerile and puritanical morality on adult British citizens.

Why This Censorship Is Wrong

Wikipedia defines censorship as:

The suppression of free speech, public communication or other information which may be considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, politically incorrect or inconvenient as determined by governments, media outlets, authorities or other groups or institutions.

It is about exercising power to enforce one world view over that of others, and has nothing to do with a modern, inclusive, pluralistic and progressive society. The UK government wants to censor content that is not criminal, and which is widely regarded throughout the rest of the world as “normal.”

As a spokeswoman for MindGeek, one of the world’s biggest pornographic website operators, told the BBC,

Many of the sexual activities prohibited from R18 [the BBFC’s most explicit certification] are normalised and accepted aspects of healthy sexuality, and are proudly celebrated by the feminist, queer and ethical porn movements internationally.

What consenting adults get up to between themselves is entirely up to them. And if they wish to publish what they do online and other adults wish to watch them, then that is none of the government’s business.

I will stress again that we are not talking about allowing kids to access this content, and that the content involves fully legal sex acts. If no crime is being committed, then it is not the government’s place to tell us what we can and cannot see.

David Banisar is senior legal counsel at Article 19, a charity that campaigns for freedom of speech. He explained to the Guardian why the amendment would be unlikely to survive a challenge in front the European Court of Human Rights:

This is really an ancient battle that has been going on since the internet existed, which is there’s a lot of content out there that some people don’t like and they are trying to restrict it in a way which is overly broad, which catches a lot of things that are – while not desirable to everybody’s tastes – still perfectly legal to see.

Mission Creep

Back in 2013, the UK government announced that an agreement had been made with the country’s four major ISPs to introduce an “opt-in” system of censorship of pornographic material on the internet.

Under the new system, all new internet subscriptions would have “family-friendly filters” that restricted adult content turned on by default. To turn these off, the subscriber would need to ask for them to be turned off (placing them in the embarrassing position of having to request porn access from their ISP).

In practice, this initiative has been largely unsuccessful. The vast majority of UK internet account holders simply have no interest in limiting their access to porn!

The way in which the “porn filters” was implemented, however, is both highly instructive and very worrying.

Not Just Porn…

Almost immediately, reports flooded in of sites such as ChildLine, the NSPCC and the Samaritans (O2), award-winning British sex education site BishUK.com and the Edinburgh Women’s Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre (TalkTalk), Sexual Health Scotland, Doncaster Domestic Abuse Helpline, and domestic abuse tackling website Reducing The Risk (BT) being blocked (to name just a few).

This meant that abusive and controlling parents could (and still can) prevent vulnerable children from accessing vital services and information designed to inform and protect them. The last category, sex education, shocked many observers by including apparently homophobic filters:

Sex education will block sites where the main purpose is to provide information on subjects such as respect for a partner, abortion, gay and lesbian lifestyle, contraceptive, sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy.

The problem, however, went far beyond censorship of just a sexual nature. The internet freedom and privacy rights organization Open Rights Group (ORG) talked to various ISPs about how the ‘pornwall’ would be implemented. It found that a disturbingly wide range of internet content was likely to be filtered. The list suggested by the ORG includes the following:

  • Pornography
  • Violent material
  • Extremist and terrorist related content
  • Anorexia and eating disorders
  • Suicide-related websites
  • Alcohol
  • Smoking
  • Web forums
  • “Esoteric material” (I are unsure what this actually means)
  • Web blocking circumvention tools (such as VPNs)

And More…

TalkTalk’s Home Safe filtering system was much praised by then-Prime Minister David Cameron. Based on talks with the ISP, TorrentFreak observed that additional content was likely to be censored, including:

  • Dating
  • Drugs and tobacco
  • File-sharing sites
  • Gambling
  • Games
  • Social networking
  • Weapons

Content blocked by ISPs at the government’s bequest is indicative of the kind of content that it would like to restrict access to. Blocking access to information on sexual health, drugs, and gambling addiction is bad enough. Rather than “protecting” children and other vulnerable members society, it actively puts them at risk.

But it is censorship of web forums (undefined), “esoteric material” and anti-censorship tools that I find particularly disturbing. Not only are the parameters of such censorship dangerously ill-defined, but they clearly show an authoritarian desire to exert political and social control on the population.

The UK government, then, already has a track record of using the notion of protecting children from porn to push for much wider politically and ideologically motivated censorship…

So How Does This Apply to the Digital Economy Bill?

The new Bill explicitly gives the BBFC powers to block content that is not pornographic:

The steps that may be specified or arrangements that may be put in place under subsection (2) (c) include steps or arrangements that will or may also have the effect of preventing persons in the United Kingdom from being able to access material other than the offending material using the service provided by the Internet service provider.”

What this “other material” is that the BBFC has the power to block is not explained.

Given that the government has already exploited the issue of porn censorship in order to perform mission creep into other areas of censorship, together with the fact that it has just passed the most extreme surveillance laws in the so-called free world, this is a very worrying ambiguity.

There is ample evidence to suggest that the UK government is exploiting “think of the children” fears about the “porn bogeyman” in order to soften up an already largely docile public into accepting more authoritarian forms of censorship.

Convincing the public to accept that the government has a key role to play in policing access to legal content is a powerful step towards building a repressive state. It is the thin end of a very dangerous wedge.

Age Checks Are a Mass Surveillance Gift

On a different, but related note, requiring every UK adult who wishes to access porn (as long as it is porn of a kind considered acceptable to the BBFC!) to sign-in using their credit card and a UK government-authorised age verification system, will provide the UK government with access to a vast trove of information that is about as personal as information can get!

As Brian Paddick, shadow home secretary of the Liberal Democrats party, explains,

The Investigatory Powers Act already has the potential to undermine online privacy and there is very little in the new bill to protect our most sensitive data. Liberal Democrats will do everything possible to ensure that our privacy is not further eroded by this Tory government.”

And of course, the government’s current record on data breaches is hardly reassuring. So it is probably safe to assume that this trove of ultra-personal information will also soon be available to legions of criminal hackers.

Conclusion

Censorship of legal content is a tool of oppression. It is used by authoritarian governments to suppress social unrest and political dissent. And it most certainly has no place in a free, open, and democratic society.

Stirring up moral outrage in order to whip up public support for much wider social and political repression is the one of the oldest tricks in the authoritarian handbook.

BestVPN.com takes the position that all censorship (of legal content) should be opposed in all its forms. A free and open society is one that is free and open to all.

Douglas Crawford

I am a freelance writer, technology enthusiast, and lover of life who enjoys spinning words and sharing knowledge for a living. You can now follow me on Twitter - @douglasjcrawf.

20 responses to “Why UK Porn Censorship Is a Terrible Idea

  1. i feel that this law and the discussion do not concern the person involved and who have chosen a profession where all is allowed.

  2. Good points. I find it strange that commenters are stuck on the porn issue rather than the identification and “other material”.

  3. We have to look at the broader implications of this new censorship law in the UK. As this story points out, it authorizes censorship of much more than just porn. And it opens the door to even more extreme restrictions, which could enable an authoritarian to manipulate the political system. The UK has made a serious mistake that it must correct. Imagine, too, that Trump finds inspiration from this, and governments around the world follow suit. How about parents do a better job of raising their children to make good, healthy choices, instead of entrusting Big Brother to do this? Good Christians should shudder at the thought of the government dictating to people of any age what they may read and see online.

  4. I live in Indonesia. The government here has been trying to block “porn” sites for quite some time (not very successfully). Some sites that are absolutely nothing to do with “porn” get blocked, e.g, “Playing For Change” (an organisation actively involved in promoting music education in developing countries). Why? Some of their videos were hosted on Vimeo which the government here regards as a “porn” hub.
    Now, it begs the question why this government doesn’t block, e.g, YouTube?I use a VPN (IPVanish) to get around this stupidity.

    Nobody here is promoting “porn”. Self-righteous people who rail against the porn industry should remember that it’s one of the biggest businesses in the world worth many billions of dollars annually. Many sites are highly sophisticated technically.

    IMHO, “censorship” will never work and never has.
    The “protecting children” furphy is the responsibility of parents/carers, not governments.
    Be careful what you wish for.

  5. Esoteric material is basically “forbidden knowledge” but can also be used to describe things like natural remedies and smaller/pagan religions. So any website that promotes non mainstream ideas could be banned under the bill.

    Also, I’m not sure if anyone actually bothered to read the article, but the author clearly isn’t defending porn. There wasn’t a single line in the article that alluded to that. The article was clearly about preventing the government from banning anything it doesn’t like and hindering freedom of speech. Protecting free speech, even if it’s speech you don’t agree with is something all of us should fight for.

  6. I think some of the commenters here completely missed the point of the article as they rushed to type their views on how “bad” porn is. No wonder the UK government can pass laws such as this with little to no opposition. The law doesn’t mean anything to you, until it actually does. It starts with things that people aren’t bothered about, or are embarrassed to take a stand on, and continues with other website blocks because the government have no reason to stop.

    For the record, I don’t personally care about the porn being blocked but I do care that the government has decided to block perfectly legal acts from being viewed. I live in a family with no children so I have been against blocking adult websites from the beginning, just as I’m also against age-verification checks. If families have children it should be their responsibility to parent them, and it should have nothing to do with the rest of us. Of course I also agree that some of this has nothing to do with protecting the children, but it was easy enough to start the blocks with that premise and continue from there.

    Thank you for the article, I just wish more people had read beyond the title.

  7. I agree with Douglas, the government is using porn as a diversionary tactic in order to cover its much more serious intent. For those of you who think all porn is bad and exploitative try this article in The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/jul/25/feminist-porn-women-fantasies-shame
    As others have mentioned this act will try and prevent anyone viewing material that is perfectly legal between consenting adults. Perhaps we should ban cars on the basis that some people drive very badly and kill others. The internet may turn out to be the curse of the 21st century because of its usefulness to terrorists and extremists, but it is not the cause of those extremes, they existed long before any of this tech existed. There have been attempts to stamp out “deviance” before, the Spanish Inquisition comes to mind or the Witch Finder General, they all ultimately failed. We need a sea change in human attitude not laws that drive things underground. With things out in the open we know what we face, underground you have no idea what is going on. Was racism cured by making certain words unacceptable? Of course it wasn’t. So don’t introduce a blanket censorship rule that is just a catch all for covert government policy

  8. The net , during a short period (you live it now), is a struggle between 2 different users which the goal is the free space.

    – one wishes at least 25% which will be build on some democratic principles.
    – the other thinks that he is the historic owner and his first responsibility must be to regulate who (when, how, why also of course) is entering inside his private & commercial market without authorization (the data are in real time & can be used for another purposes).

    Whatever the subject (porn is like an exercise of style for both players) the line , like in the American football game , must be trespassed.

    More you will defend the freedom of speech more you will obtain privacy rights.

  9. To the people working on this site:
    Why are you publishing these kinds of articles?
    Are you trying to win over the porn crowd?

    1. Hi Pat,

      We are not “trying to win over the porn crowd.” We (and myself in particular) are making a stand against censorship.

    1. Hi Stacy,

      1. We are defending the right to look at legal content free from governmnet interference.
      2. I am strongly suggesting that the UK governmnet is exploiting the emotive issue of porn in order to push for wider and much sinister forms of censorship.

      Ultimately, this is an issue closely related to freedom of speech. And I firmly believe that free speech much be robustly defended, even when we do not agree with what is being said. Anything else legitimizes and encourages repression.

      1. maybe you could have made it a point in the article, that you think that the emotive subject prohibiting porn is actually used to suppress valuable information from people with no one the wiser than those directly affected by it.

        i’m not a fan of porn, but i agree that this is ban and censorship by the gov of what is acceptable and unacceptable sexual behavior in front of a camera and blocking valuable sites right along with the porn ban is worrisome.

        since people are already upset about the porn industry, as they should be, it’s disgusting, i think it would help if you made it clear that your focus is on the side effects of this new ruling.

        just my 2cts

        1. Hi MyM,

          Thank you for giving this subject proper consideration. I make two points in the article:

          1. Regardless of your feelings about porn, censorship of legal content is censorship of legal content. As long as what I am looking at is legal (i.e something non-violent that is happening between consenting adults), then the government has no right to tell me what I can and can not do. FWIW, I am no fan of the porn industry either, and have no interest in viewing kind of material blocked by this legislation. But I passionately believe that neither I nor the governmnet have any right to tell others what to do when no law is being broken.

          2. The government is deliberately using the emotive issue of porn to introduce other, much more sinister and politically motivated limits on what we are allowed to see (which I believe is your point).

  10. hi,
    i have 3 questions (>DouglasCraword could answer himself maybe but it is opened at everyone) :
    – should these *agreement* or *laws* prevent against harassment/ outrage/ assault/ unwelcome guest/ ?
    – should these *agreement* or *laws* represent the feeling of the majority of the people ?
    – Is it about a puerile and puritanical morality:oppression:censorship:homophobic campaign (useless and dangerous according your point of view) or a deep interrogation : who is a genuine and useful resident:Britain ?
    Thank you.

    1. Hi egyptian,

      In my view, people have a right to do whatever the hell they want, as long as no-one else is harmed by their actions.

  11. You can say all you want about “freedom” but porn is a disgusting and extremely damaging drug for our society. It entraps people and poisons their minds. It abuses women and is poisoning the minds of our children. It is a drug, just like heroin. I’m a fan of this site, but as a humble Christian, I will always stand against the porn industry.

    1. You can say all you want about “porn” but religion is a disgusting and extremely damaging drug for our society. It entraps people and poisons their minds. It abuses women and is poisoning the minds of our children. It is a drug, just like heroin. I’m a fan of this site, but as a humble atheist, I will always stand against the religion industry.

      1. Hi Jimbob,

        I just want to clarify that James is simply visitor to our site, and is not a staff member.

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