Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Online opt-in pornography is incredibly dangerous

We should all be naturally sceptical of the government's attempts to limit freedoms. Whilst there are legitimate reasons to limit freedom and favour safety or protection, we should be very, very concerned when it begins to meddle with the freedom of the Internet, and even more worried when it does it in collusion with biggest Internet Service Providers in the country, because it creates an unsavoury relationship of government and corporate power.

Personally I have no interest in pornography, so when I attack these proposals, I don't come at them from a horny teenager's perspective. I hasten to point out, though, that those who do enjoy sampling the fleshly delights of porn have just as legitimate grounds to be angry as I do from my ivory tower of political analysis. In summary of the proposals: websites containing pornographic content will be blocked by default; they can only be accessed if an Internet subscriber requests access to the content from their ISP. (In terms you an I understand, that's the company that you pay absurd amounts a month to in order to rent a cable which gives you access to the Internet at a slower rate than you're paying for.)

The key issue here is where does the process of blocking websites end? If we allow pornography to be blocked by default, and allow the government and ISPs to put into place an official, legal, managed system by which do to this, you're opening a can of worms in terms of what else can be blocked in the future. The glass is always half empty; government could extent this scheme to cover any number of website categories. For example, governments were already pontificating about blocking Wikileaks on the grounds of national security (the real reason was that it showed the public how fucking embarrassingly incompetent government is). If this system of legal blocking were already in place, it would be so easy for the government to simply create a new category of 'websites which threaten national security' and have them blocked by default. This would instantly cut them off from the vast majority of people, as most won't be bothered enough or aware enough of the system to have website unblocked, and the process of getting these sites unblocked could be made as convoluted and difficult as possible. We've all had to fill out forms for the government - they're usually long, complex, and very confusing - and that's an example of government trying to make forms simple. It doesn't even bear thinking about how difficult it could be made to get access to blocked-by-default websites if the government chooses to make it deliberately difficult. Worse still, this scheme could be extended so only certain people could have access to blocked sites. For example, just allowing Whitehall departments access to Wikileaks but blocking it for the general public.

I'd also like to extend this very pessimistic vision further still. If one must proactively request from their ISP access to blocked website categories, then this information is going to be kept in a database. And since this scheme is being done in close collaboration between ISPs and the government, there's a real risk here future authoritarian, controlling governments using this data to punish those who have previously requested access to what are considered 'unsavoury' websites or any other category of website which was blocked. I don't usually have a problem with databases holding data about us - but aside from the fair exceptions of illegal websites - there's no reason that your ISP, and certainly not your Government, needs to know what sites you're requesting access too.

Similarly, setting up a system of limited access to the Internet makes it easier for ISPs to begin charging in a totally different way. There was a proposal a few years ago by an American ISP to provide different packages; the less you pay, the less content you get access to. For example, the cheapest package would only give access to a selection of news and media websites. For the full access to the entire Web that we all expect, you'd have to pay a higher cost. This would be a dangerous assault on a free and open Internet.

If you do not share my Domesday predictions about how dangerous this could be, I do hope you may agree with some of my assessment of the social implications and practicality of having pornography blocked by default. Firstly on the practical side, it would mean that an entire household can't access pornography. In our modern age, the Internet is used in many different ways by different family members; in a hypothetical situation: Husband may be downstairs feeling frisky and wanting to watch porn on the desktop PC, meanwhile Wife might be streaming Gareth Gates whilst doing the ironing (not a stereotype at all), whilst the kids are upstairs doing their homework and wasting time chatting on SpaceTwitFaceFlickPlusBlogPress. Whilst it would seem legitimate for Husband and Wife to want to block their little darlings from accessing 'Snow White Does Seven Dwarves', it's not legitimate to presume that Wife wants to be blocked from watching 'Dreamboat Hunky Cable Repair Man and Bimbo - Part XVI'. Yet if Wife and Husband decide they want to access adult content, and therefore contact SkyBTVirginTalk to request access to the the blocked sites, they will then be enabled for all people who access the internet in that home. So now little Timmy and Sarah have another distraction from their homework. So then clearly the whole system falls apart if there are different types of Internet users. It's not possible to have your ISP unblock the sites on one of your computers whilst leaving it unblocked on the others. Even if it were possible, it would be a massive pain to phone them every time someone got a new PC or wanted to connect one of those newfangled magical smartphones that seem to be replaced every three weeks. (I'm bitter because I'm using a 7 year old phone. It's liable to explode if I try to connect to the Internet on it.)

So this practical barrier brings us round to an important topic - it's not the government's or the ISP's role to be the parent to children. If a parent is - quite legitimately - concerned about their children accessing adult content, then the best thing they can do is buy or download free software to block websites or only allow safe sites. This can be installed on individual PCs rather than attempted a silly impractical blanket solution. Moreover, wherever possible, a parent's role is to educate and monitor a child's use of the Internet. You don't let very young children roam free on the Internet if you're concerned that they might access something inappropriate. And by the time they get to their mid-teens, parents probably need to stop worrying and resign themselves to the fact that there's a 90% chance that their child wants to, and is going to watch porn.

Which again brings me on to my - just about - final point - that it's natural and not harmful for teenagers of an appropriate age to see pornography. Whilst parents should still legitimately block the hardcore, violent, sadistic stuff, there's really no reason to be concerned about them viewing normal sex if they're 16 or over. It's a perfectly natural part of growing up; teenagers are hormonal beasts and they need satiating. They're curious about sex and pornography is an important way they can acquaint themselves with it. However, if the proposed block-by-default measures go through the teenagers of the future won't be able to access it in the same way that those of my generation have. They'll want to see it, but can you imaging teenagers asking their parents to contact Virgin Media to have the block removed? In all but the most liberal, artsy families, it won't happen. Far from protecting our children, it's likely to make sex even more of a taboo than it already is. This may even lead to a rise in the trend of teenagers creating and filming their own pornography, as noted in Channel 4's Sex Education Show. Whilst in many cases this may be harmless - but illegal - youthful high-jinks and sexual exploration, it has the potential to land under-age participants in serious legal trouble which could ruin their future careers; and potentially cause serious emotional damage in unwilling participants or severe damage in the video leaks beyond the intended circle. We can therefore see that blocking online pornography performed by willing, adult participants is simply trying to put a lid on a perfectly natural, safe, and legal way of exploring sex and potentially opening up a new can of worms by pushing our young to explore less savoury and more dangerous methods of pornography.

We don't solve teenage pregnancy or a high number of STIs by hiding sex away and pretending that our kids aren't interested in it. We solve it partly by education and being open about it.  Contrary to blanket website blocks, there is a legitimate role for government to play in the role of education about sex and encouraging more openness about sex between parents and their children. That is how we fix the problem, not by a 'Think of the children' Maude Flanders-esque moralistic knee-jerk reaction that tries to sweep a growing issue under a rug.

Even if - in hypothetical moralistic social authoritarian land - the scheme were to work perfectly and solve all problems relating to sex, is it worth giving up the freedom of the Internet for? The last bastion of freedom is under attack from governments who fear it because they can't control it. The more we allow them to limit it, the less online freedom we have. One small step towards regulation is a giant leap towards a limited, controlled, unfree Internet.

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