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The Great Firewall of Britain

December 23, 2013

We started hearing rumblings of anti-porn censorship by European governments at the beginning of the year. Back in March, the E.U. Parliament voted on a proposal that would have set out the path for laws “banning pornography in all media” across the E.U., including the Internet. Fortunately, the controversial “porn ban” section of the proposal – not so aptly titled, “A Resolution on Eliminating Gender Stereotypes in the EU” – was struck down “amidst censorship concerns.”

Instead of genuinely examining the potential censorship issues with such overbroad legislation, the U.K.’s prime minister, David Cameron, decided to make the porn ban his pet project. But with the gender equality pretense falling on deaf ears, he went straight to the subject sure to incite moral panic at its finest – old faithful: saving the children.

After all, that refrain worked when the U.K. passed its ban on “extreme porn.”  That law was recently used as justification for thousands of U.K. law enforcement officers to raid the homes of over 3,000 London residents and seize more than 1,000 DVDs, cell phones and other media, containing extreme porn. This sort of book-burning effort would never survive constitutional muster in the U.S., but the U.K. is now taking its Internet censorship efforts to the next level.

Under the guise of preventing child abuse and underage exposure to porn, Cameron rolled out his “voluntary” Internet filtering plan, with ISPs designated to do the dirty work. Despite the fact that common sense says end-user-level filtering is more effective at blocking unwanted content, such an active choice apparently leaves British citizens with too much free will.

By implementing default ISP-level filtering, it is abundantly clear to the U.K. public that their government has made the choice for them. Over 90 percent of U.K.-based ISPs have already implemented the default blocking of a wide variety of controversial content, including pornography.

Many of the U.K.’s anti-censorship groups were expecting more pushback from big ISPs, which would then force the issue to legislation as opposed to mere policy. But the ISPs seem happy to cooperate. They are now reaping the benefits of sleeping with the enemy and have been tasked with constant refinement of their filters and threatened with additional government regulation if they “do not answer to future demands or maintain momentum.”

The adult entertainment industry is in good company though, as the pre-selected filtering system restricts several other categories of “problematic” material such as that related to alcohol, drugs, tobacco, political extremism, violence, gaming, and social networking.

Some ISPs will even block “esoteric” material by default – although no definition of that term is provided – thus, allowing ISPs broad discretion in determining which sites to block.  Only by contacting one’s ISP and choosing to shamefully opt-out of the default filter system, will Internet users in the U.K. get “full” access to the web.

These filters are being presented to Britain as the saving grace of the Internet, despite the paradoxical reality that network-level algorithmic blocking will most certainly not catch everything it’s supposed to, and inevitably block material it shouldn’t.  The cautionary tale brought up throughout this entire process, but quickly dismissed by Cameron and his supporters, is that of Australia.

Not long ago, Australia implemented a countrywide filtering system as well.  Within months, legitimate sex education sites, gay and lesbian support sites, and even medical forums discussing sexual issues slowly started disappearing.  Fortunately, Australia has since tempered its filters, but not after causing a serious erosion of digital freedom.

Aside from the immense privacy and liberty issues, what about the inevitable collateral damage that will result from the imperfect logistics of such a system?  Are the ISPs responsible (financially and otherwise) for overzealous blocking and timely correcting such mistakes?  Again, since these practices are merely the result of David Cameron’s incessant temper tantrums and not (yet) parliamentary law, there is no governing body tasked with oversight of the filtering process ….  Except the ISP itself.

Whether Cameron is attempting to tackle the insurmountable task of isolationism in the Digital Age, or his efforts are merely a misguided attempt at country-wide moral salvation, there’s no excuse for such regressive policies in the 21st Century.

The prime minister is undoubtedly aware that his proposed filtering system will block perfectly legal material and prohibit many adults (not children) from accessing such content.  Yet he continues this assault on fundamental freedoms.

Unfortunately, censorship tends to spread like wildfire once it takes hold.

This particular flavor of ISP-based filtering censorship is not limited to the U.K. Canada may jump on the bandwagon too, if Conservative Member of Parliament, Joy Smith of Winnipeg, has her way.  She believes in the U.K. approach: All pornography should be preemptively blocked in Canada, with users forced to ‘opt in’ to accessing adult content by contacting their Internet service provider.

A petition has managed to receive more than 10,000 signatures by people supporting these censorship efforts, despite the fact that the effort is based primarily on the junk science of porn addiction.

For months, anti-censorship activists have tirelessly sought the truth behind these new efforts.  The layers of bureaucratic red tape have slowly peeled away to reveal yet another misguided political agenda.

This new breed of censorship cannot be dismissed as merely another family values-based, moral panic brand of suppression.

The censorship crusade currently invading the E.U., grows from something much more dangerous than typical right-wing extremism; this movement is rooted in the left.  Armed to the teeth with the pseudo-liberal views of classic anti-porn feminists like Dworkin and MacKinnon, this resurgence of antiquated feminism by European officials is truly alarming.

Anti-porn feminism calls for the abolishment of pornography, as it is alleged to be the visual manifestation of female oppression. What this school of thought tends to ignore are the notions of free will, accountability, and self-regulation – the same principles forgotten by David Cameron and his regime.

Anti-porn feminism classifies all adult material – regardless of the actual content – as an innate social harm.  It fosters the close-mindedness that sex-positive feminists have been combatting since the 1980’s.  It’s the kind of thinking that blames rape on porn, instead of the rapist.  Of course, there exists a mountain of actual, peer-reviewed research indicating quite the opposite; the widespread availability of erotic material has, in fact, reduced the rate of sex crimes.

For example, between 1981 and 2006,  rape crime in the U.S. declined  85 percent despite the dramatic increase in availability and use of adult material during the same time. As with many anti-porn arguments, the facts simply do not support the conclusions.  However, this particular anti-porn feminist renaissance is a formidable threat to free expression, as it continues achieving significant victories throughout the E.U.

“This shift from right-wing to left-wing censorship is a dangerous trend, and makes it more difficult to dismiss the opponent as right-wing kooks doing the Lord’s work,” said Jerry Barnett, founder of the Sex & Censorship campaign (whose website is not-so-ironically blocked by U.K. filters).

In a recent discussion with the author about the U.K.’s anti-porn political agenda, Barnett warned that the consequences resulting from this movement will be felt across the board:  “The U.K. market punches far above its weight class in erotic content consumption,” meaning that such censorial practices will significantly impact both, the rights of viewers and also the financial bottom line of any adult content producers distributing to a U.K. audience.

Given the high stakes ante on the table, the response by the U.K.-based adult industry has been surprisingly underwhelming. Perhaps some feel that they will be deemed the golden child, and given the governmental stamp of approval to operate in a new, monopolistic marketplace.  U.S. adult industry activists have been slow to react as well, with some exceptions.

Whatever the reason, the adult industry’s relative silence is deafening and such inaction is dangerously short-sighted.  When ISP-level filtering becomes an accepted practice in any developed nation the continued availability of erotic speech is at risk in every nation.  The repercussions are by no means restricted to the U.K., and its efforts have already spawned new calls for ISP-level porn filtering in Iceland and Australia.

While the adult entertainment industry might believe that it can write off the U.K. market as a fluke fiscal loss, it should not stand idly by while a country that otherwise recognizes individual liberty, crushes free speech rights of those who wish to access erotic material.

The battle lines have been drawn in this tremendously important fight for Internet freedom.  London calling … for help.


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