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Can we trust the state to censor porn?

22 July 2013

1:31 PM

22 July 2013

1:31 PM

The most sweeping censorship is always the most objectionable. In principle, however, there is nothing wrong with David Cameron’s sweeping proposal that the customers of internet service providers must prove that they are 18 or over before they can watch online pornography. The rule for liberal democracies is (or ought to be) that consenting adults are free to watch, read and listen to what they want. It stops child pornography – because by definition children are not consenting adults – and it could stop children accessing pornographic sites. Children are no more able to give informed consent to watching pornography than they are to appearing in it – if ‘appear’ is not too weak a verb to describe the rape and abuse of children on camera. If the law stops them walking into a shop and legally buying pornographic magazines, it can stop (or attempt to stop) them watching pornography online.

Age verification procedures already exist to make a system of opting in to watch pornography online work. The only question is whether David Cameron is serious about using them. Since the arrival of Lynton Crosby, 10 Downing Street appears to have gone back in time to the worst days of Tony Blair’s first term when Alastair Campbell and his creatures pleased the press by manufacturing supposedly tough crime initiatives, which turned out to be recycled, unworkable or fictitious.

A letter from civil servants to internet service providers shows that the Conservatives supposedly tough proposal that customers must opt in and prove their age before they can watch porn may be as phoney as a New Labour crime stunt. The civil servants asked the ISPs to pretend the existing voluntary system of parental controls was something new when it was nothing of the sort. As one ISP told the BBC, the government was asking it to mislead customers for the sake of a few good headlines.

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But as I said, if there is more to the proposal that we opt in to porn sites than spin and deceit, there is nothing wrong with it in principle. Perhaps surprisingly, serious doubts begin with the government’s plans to make the possession of pornography depicting rape illegal.

I suppose the principled objection that the state should not intervene if the actors involved in a rape scene are consenting adults and the viewers are grown-ups too, will not satisfy many readers. I mentioned in the Observer a few weeks ago that there is no reliable evidence that images of violence against women provoke violence against women. Studies are riddled with uncertainty. Indeed, if you can imagine a psychologist devising a reliable experiment he knew would provoke a man to rape, his university would tell him that he could not ethically run it for fear of the consequences. Nevertheless, no one would recommend a man who derived pleasure from rape scenes to a woman friend, let alone a sister or daughter. I cannot see many MPs standing up in Parliament and saying ‘I watch rape porn and it has never done me any harm’. In truth, I can’t imagine any man saying that: it’s not the kind of vice men admit to. Cameron is thus likely to get his way without significant opposition.

You might think that when material is so taboo no one will confess to enjoying it, the case for prohibition is complete. But be careful about giving the state more power. I wrote last year about the police and Crown Prosecution Service’s tyrannical treatment of Simon Walsh. They arrested the City lawyer under the existing law against the possession of ‘extreme pornography’. In fact, the ‘pornography’ consisted of images Walsh and his circle of gay friends had taken of each other playing violent games and circulated among themselves. The jury concluded that, however obscene the sexual practices on display were, they were not as obscene as the notion that the CPS could poke its nose into the nation’s bedrooms. The court acquitted, but not before the prosecution had ruined Walsh’s legal career. As soon as they heard of his arrest, his fellow barristers at London’s 5 Essex Court Chambers forgot everything they had learned about the presumption of innocence, and asked the police to seize his pass so that he could not re-enter their offices. Boris Johnson behaved just as badly. He removed Walsh from the London Fire Authority without, once again, taking the decent precaution of waiting to hear whether he was innocent or guilty.

There is a parallel here with other forms of eavesdropping on the Net. The state’s expansion of surveillance of the Web sounded reasonable until you found that the authorities were not only targeting serious criminals and terrorists (as promised) but parents trying to get their children into a decent school as well. Mutatis mutandis, the expansion of legislation prohibiting pornographic images may sound equally reasonable until you remember it gives more powers to police and prosecutors. The record shows they cannot be trusted to use them justly.


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Show comments
  • Eddie

    We are living in a New Puritan Age – an age where a housewife mentality, that of the yummy mummy and paranoid parent – seems to be running the country; an age where perfectly legal and healthy images may now be banned (in order that politicians may grovel to get the women’s vote); an age where sending 2 emails to an ex-girlfriend will get you arrested for ‘harassment’ and where millions of pounds is wasted with the police pursuing the easy meat of these arrests rather than doing any real work or even attempting to catch any muggers, burglars or yobs and yobesses; an age where freedom of speech and expression is so seriously threatened that we seem to be turning into a ‘politically correct’ feminist diversity-worshipping dictatorship.
    Why is this happening? Well, partly because our children are safer than ever before and parents have fewer of them – so project their own fears onto their lives; this is stoked and exaggerated by a ratings-hungry scaremongering media keen to feast oin the fears of ‘mums’ everywhere (though never pointing out that the risk to kids has not risen in 50 years and children and babies are far more likely to be killed by their mothers and women than by anyone else).
    In all this, the USA – usually portrayed as Puritan Central is right and we are wrong. We need the guarantee of freedom of speech and expression that they have – and we need it soon, because we wake up one day to find that we’re living in a repressive and oppressive femi-dictatorship.
    What Cameron is doing will do nothing to stop child abuse or images – does anyone seriously think hardened abusers just Google to find this stuff on the internet? Is anyone seriously dim enough to make the false argument that watching images of naked and aroused adults for fun causes abuse or leads to children being abducted and killed? We truly live in an age of idiots. Anyone who equates healthy images of adults engaged in rumpy-pumpy and child pawn needs a good dose of common sense.

  • Neil Jones

    It’s no secret that Governments of the World have conspired to spy on and censor our Internet activity.

    Connect to this VPN service to anonymously encrypt your internet activity from prying eyes.

    http://hidemyass.com/vpn/r5098/

  • Ron Todd

    Can we trust the intention of the state? NO
    Can we trust the ability of the state NO

  • Mike

    Can we trust the state on anything ? NO !!!!!

  • Karla’s Man

    No?

  • Karla’s Man

    Yes?

    • roger

      I am currently online via a free wi-fi router at a cafe one kilometer away ( in sunny Bosnia), sort that out Cameron.
      Is Cameron’s nickname really -moron.

  • Karla’s Man

    The activation of the Disqus Spam filters for use on this comments’ board (causing the liquidation de facto of many of the comments) proves that “the unmentionable stuff” and the resulting Spam is getting increasingly out of control.

  • simmo70

    BROKEN BRITISH POLITICS – WHITEHALL WHITEWASH

    Hague seems to have been very busy with his Spin Doctors
    on overtime writing the first six articles of 32 putting the Spin Bias on why
    we should stay in the EU .If its that good why does Cameron want to ditch 135 of
    its Rules including the Human Rights Act .They never fail to find money for BS
    to support their failed attempt to Govern ,but when it comes to a seriously
    wounded soldier he is found Fit for the Dole Queue by ATOS.

    A few Tory brain cells have been put together ,that
    probably means the whole greedy party to introduce the answer to Unemployment –
    Conscription .The 13/14 Conscription Bill started its journey yesterday .Another
    Sneaky Bill similar to the Closed Courts Bill – Slide it in when we have other
    Headlines to keep them Occupied .The Media are very quiet on the build up of Russian
    Iranian and Chinese artillery to back Assad in Syria .A baby is more important
    .
    http://brokenbritishpolitics.simplesite.com

  • Karla’s Man

    Well, I say, that the Internet is so awash with “the stuff” (and with them, Internet viruses and malwares) these days that perhaps some restrictions are necessary simply to free up capacity on the Internet. We seem to have forgotten how slow Broadband Internet was some 11-13 years ago.

    If anything, there should be at least an one-off £100 (£25 from public Wi-Fi users, per session), and a £5 per month for landline/3G/4G users (and more for private Wi-Fi and commercial users), VAT-free, non-deductible levy for the privilege of getting unlocked, provided that any monies collected go into a fund for the provision of Government subsidies for the upgrading of the existing telephony, broadband Internet infrastructure and newer international cables, and not simply collected as revenue for the Exchequer or for the shareholders of the ISPs. It ought to be no different from having to pay extra to send a parcel.

  • zanzamander

    In the days when spooks are watching and recording everything we say and do on the internet, do our police and government really need thess new powers?

  • Fergus Pickering

    Pretty well everybody watches and enjoys violent films. I certainly do. Does this watching make us more violent in our own lives? And if it does should such films be forbidden? That would be about half of Hollywood’s output, would it not?. And.conversely, suppose research showed that watching images of naked children on the net satisfied many a paedophile so that he was LESS likely to abduct a child in real life. Should the amount of such images be increased and should they be made easy of access?

    • Karla’s Man

      Why would pictures alone satisfy a nonce?

  • Ben

    Am i not allowed to post on this website or something? My posts keep getting deleted despite not having anything contentious or rude in them?

    I just said this country is a disgrace and that people have no control over what turns them on, so why persecute them for something that doesn’t actually hurt anybody?

  • stephen rothbart

    I was going to post a long comment on this but my right hand is really cramped for some reason.

  • dave brooker

    Can we trust the state to do anything properly?

  • David Lindsay

    If China can co-operate with Google in order to block anything that her government happens to dislike, then Google can certainly prevent the accessing from the United Kingdom of pornographic material that is illegal here.

    Certain record companies block YouTube access from British computers due to our copyright laws. When even the mighty New York Times runs articles that might contravene either or both of our libel laws and our secrecy laws, then they cannot be accessed from, for example, the computer at which I am writing this post.

    Not only does the technology exist, but it is already in routine use on an enormous scale.

    Would this block dissident material in North Korea, where who has the equipment, anyway? So be it. Would this block dissident material in Saudi Arabia, where the dissidents differ from the regime only in being even more Islamist than it is? So be it.

    If that is the price to pay in order to stop anyone in the United Kingdom from looking at the torture and rape of women, children and indeed men, then so be it.

    The power of the State against the “free” market. Thank God for it.

    But that is why Cameron will do absolutely nothing with or about it.

    • zanzamander

      If China can co-operate with Google

      Actually it is Google co-operating with the Chinese regime, not the other way around – a small but very important difference.

      • terregles2

        That makes it even worse.

    • terregles2

      The treatment of children in this world is disgraceful. Anyone who has any urge to look at any child being abused is sick and depraved.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Who are those Muslims studs going to turn to now?

  • TheOtherTurnipTaliban

    Let’s see…

    NSA/GCHQ are monitoring everything you do online

    You are now required to advertise the fact that you are a pervert with a deliberate opt-in

    The CPS will be working hand in glove with the above Stasi organisations to track people and spy on them to check if their pornographic predilections match the definition of “legal” by the almighty moral arbiter of our glorious state

    Now imagine there are journalists, protesters, whistleblowers who have information that is embarrassing to the government? What to do, what to do…

    Well you can drag their reputation through the mud and ruin their careers because of salacious slurs that will be ‘accidentally’ leaked to newspapers.

    This is all obvious and if the people of GB had any brains they would see it coming a mile off but in all likelihood they will be cheering when it happens. I loved my country a lot but as the years go by I see GB pursuing one policy after another, both foreign and domestic, that are deserving of nothing but outright scorn and contempt and it makes me embarrassed to be British.

  • Ross Parker

    If there is a positive side to this proposal, it is that a generation of 12-18 year olds will leave school highly qualified in network traffic redirection and IP tunnelling.

    • TheOtherTurnipTaliban

      The other thing about this policy is that the software required to circumvent it is so ubiquitous and in many cases completely free that it can’t end any other way than badly.

      The next step to “fix” this DOA aborted fetus of a policy will be to attempt to ban VPNs and other privacy protection methods in the name of saving us from the pedonaziterrorists and OAPs who are hiding bombs in their adult nappies.

      People say that “privacy is dead”, and in many ways it is, but that’s not the same thing as deliberately taking it out to the woodshed and bludgeoning its brains out and then pursuing people who value their privacy – which is, believe me, exactly how this ends.

      And because I’ve mentioned bombs and terrorists I’m sure someone at GCHQ will be tasked with reading this so here’s my message to you too: Get a life and read about the stasi you disgusting excuse for a human being.

  • Colonel Mustard

    The interesting thing about the leaked letter to ISPs is the way its wording suggests Cameron is acting unilaterally, pretty much like a dictator. Is he, perhaps, “leading beyond his authority” on this? When does parliament get to have a say?

    He behaves too much as though his office gives him the right to peddle his personal views, values and morality rather than represent the government and parliament.

    • allymax bruce

      Westminster wants your vote, Jim,; but not as you know it!

  • grahamix

    Currently, the majors ISPs (bar TalkTalk) offer Parental Controls in the form of downloadable software. McAfee and Trend Micro are two of the providers of this software, and they have a reasonably good reputation in this field. TalkTalk’s network based solution has been derided in reviews by PC Pro, but in the intervening year, may have improved.

    Cameron’s proposal for network level filters means that ISPs will have to build an entire parallel network infrastructure to offer censored and non-censored access. The big ISPs compete on price and speed – in order to provide fast and cheap internet access, you need to put as little kit in the way of the packets as possible. The Great Firewall of MumsNet is the exact opposite of this.

    So who will pay for this technological white elephant? Will the cost of double up on network infrastructure be borne by consumers – paying for slower internet at higher cost? Subsidised by the taxpayer? Or are low margin ISP businesses expected to swallow the cost?

    • TheOtherTurnipTaliban

      As usual with state intervention in the private sector it will mean that the big boys like O2 and friends will be able to fulfill the government’s demands and will then be able to recoup the additional costs by coordinating their pricing with their largest competitors. Everyone’s a winner.

      Except if you’re just a normal Brit of course, in which case you can just do what you’re told and if you don’t want to you can sod off and die.

      Oh and the smaller businesses will naturally get kicked in the balls by the additional costs and will probably end up just shutting down. Kerching! I smell another bumper year of crap service and bonuses, and perhaps another 5 years from Labour or Blue Labour!

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