Dear Claire, About Those Filters…

#CensoredUK copyDear Claire Perry MP,

I know you remember me – we’ve met twice. The first time, I was a witness at your parliamentary inquiry into “protecting children online” – although of course, we all knew that was a euphemism for justifying Internet censorship. I was shocked, but not surprised, to hear the torrent of anecdote and misinformation that passed for “evidence”, and was duly noted by the MPs.

If the event hadn’t been so serious, it would have been comical. Jacqui Smith (whose expertise in pornography extended as far as accidentally claiming for some on expenses) was sure that porn was leading more people to try anal sex – although she apparently had no evidence that this was true, and didn’t explain why it might be a bad thing anyway. The anti-sex group Object was, of course, represented, and of course furnished the inquiry with horrific (but vague) tales of rape caused by porn. But then, Object are as fond of linking everything to rape as the Daily Mail is of linking everything to cancer.

I did my best to point out that, if there is any link between porn and sexual violence at all, evidence suggest a benign one: increasing sexual freedom and openness (including easy access to pornography) correlates with a decline in sexual violence. And psychologists are increasingly coming to the conclusion that porn isn’t harmful – although conservative sexual attitudes probably do cause lasting damage. But puzzlingly, the MPs showed fairly little curiosity, and seemed to note down wild claims just as easily as they did hard evidence. There already appeared to be a general acceptance that something must be done.

I was especially worried to be the only person defending the basic concept of free speech (although I discovered later that Jim Killock of the Open Rights Group had appeared in another session). Free speech was once something Britain prided itself on, and still today, many Britons live in the mistaken belief that our country is founded on this idea. But the reality is otherwise: for decades, Britain has been easily panicked into surrendering rights in exchange for (false) promises of greater protection for our children. I was proud to defend free speech in Britain’s historic Parliament, but I felt that myself and Jim should not have been left to fly that flag alone.

Although you made a good show of listening carefully to all the arguments, it was already known at that stage that you favoured an Internet filter. To my eyes, it seemed that you had reached your conclusion and were going through the process of gathering evidence before you announced your support for a filter. And so it turned out.

You had been warned that the first experiment in filtering for “child protection”, on mobile networks, had been a catastrophe. It is simply not possible to classify hundreds of millions of websites as either “safe” or “over 18” without making vast numbers of mistakes. Yes, it’s pretty easy to block most commercial porn (in fact those sites voluntarily self-label as adult content), but in between kink.com and disney.com there is a near-infinite amount of hard-to-classify content.

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Much of the content and many of the forums on sex education, sex advice, gay and lesbian advice, information on sexual infections, and so on, is aimed at teenagers, and yet has been largely blocked from mobile phones held by under-18s. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. All sorts of content has found itself blocked on mobile networks. The Open Rights Group even found a site selling engraved silver gifts that had been blocked because it sold cigarette lighters – classed as “tobacco products” and therefore censored by the blind, dumb filtering software.

And these sites aren’t just blocked for children: millions of adults too have found themselves unable to reach “over 18” sites. There are many reasons why some adults don’t want to contact their provider and ask for the block to be removed; and even among those who do, some have found the block replaced a day later, presumably through some technical error.

This isn’t “filtering”, it’s censorship, and it already affects the way millions of people see the Internet. And now you want to repeat an experiment that has failed catastrophically, but on a far greater scale. Home connections, unlike mobile connections, are shared. Now, as well as asking their ISP for the right to look at “adult content”, people have to ask their parent, their landlord, their flatmate, their partner.

The second time we met was in the Sky News studio. I know you remember me, because you described me as a “responsible pornographer”. I felt dirty. I tried to put two questions to you, but you talked over them, as politicians are trained to do. So here are those questions again:

  1. I’m a parent: are you suggesting that my partner and I should censor our home Internet connection because we happen to have a child in the house? Should parents set their filters on or off?
  2. How can you prevent a repeat of the huge overblocking problem that already appears on mobile networks?

Since you wouldn’t answer these, I will: 1) There is no sense in a filter that affects a whole household rather than individuals; 2) You can’t prevent overblocking. You can promise to, just as you can promise to stop the tide. But you can’t. It’s impossible.

And now, the ISP filters are here. And guess what? Overblocking has already been reported. Of course, you (and the ISPs) will dismiss these as teething problems, but unlike teething problems, they ain’t going away.

We shouldn’t worry about teens though. They have doubtless already downloaded the Pirate Browser, or bought themselves a USB key that bypasses the filter. The net result is that nobody is safer, but many people have had their view of the Internet censored. The genius of your approach – bullying the ISPs – is that you have done all this without the messy business of passing a law or having a debate in parliament! Who needs democracy anyway? The Chinese and Iranians are, no doubt, taking notes.

I look forward to our next meeting.

Regards
Jerry Barnett
Founder, Sex & Censorship

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#CensoredUK – We Trended!

#CensoredUK copyYesterday’s #CensoredUK Twitter campaign made a splash online, trending nationwide across the UK. We launched the campaign to supporters late on Wednesday. By Thursday morning, regular tweets were being made and by late afternoon, the hashtag was spotted trending in London and across the UK. We often hear people say that the British are more concerned with security or prudery than free expression, but yesterday suggested otherwise. Many British people are outraged with attempts to censor our media.

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As of this morning at least The Telegraph had covered the campaign.

The twin strands of this campaign – Sex and Censorship – are deliberately chosen. Today’s push towards Internet censorship comes from two camps: puritans who think sexual expression is harmful, and those who seek to gain power by controlling information. These two groups came together at the ATVOD conference on child protection which was held in London yesterday afternoon. We heard a series of hysterical claims about the effects of pornography, but were offered no evidence to back them.

The Deputy Children’s Commissioner, Sue Berelowitz, described in detail a gang rape of an 11 year old; she claimed that participants had said the experience was “like being in a porn film”; and then claimed that this was all the evidence she needed to conclude that porn causes sexual violence.

But (even assuming that the story is true as she related), anecdotes are not a substitute for statistical evidence. We know that porn availability does not correlate with a rise in sexual violence; in fact, we know that the opposite is true. Sexual violence has fallen sharply in most developed countries in the past three decades, as have most other forms of violence.

They do not have the moral high ground – we do! We do not “protect our children” by trying to hide the world away from them. We don’t make them safer by allowing them to hit puberty without knowing what is happening to their bodies, and what the implications are.

We live in an increasingly safe society, but a coalition of campaigners want to convince us that thing are getting worse. A rising moral panic is under way; the purpose of the Sex & Censorship campaign is counter those messages, and replace hysteria with evidence-based thinking.

We thank everyone who has followed so far, and look forward to your support in coming campaigns!

#CensoredUK – Day of Action – Thursday 12 December 2013

Online day of action: #CensoredUK Thursday 12th December. Please copy and send the following tweet (and see below for more sample tweets) – and follow us on Twitter.

For three decades, the UK has been sleepwalking into censorship. It would be inaccurate to say we still are: now we are running at full speed! Most of the censorship measures have been introduced under the banner of “protecting children”; now we are told our children are under threat from the Internet. And yet no reliable evidence of a threat has been produced.

On the contrary, a generation has grown up with Internet access, and teenage pregnancy rates are at their lowest since 1969. Since domestic violence cases peaked at over 1.1m in 1993, they have fallen by over 70%. And these trends don’t just affect the UK. In the United States, rates of sexual violence fell by 64% from 1995 to 2010.

But the evidence doesn’t deter those who want to limit access to the Internet for British citizens. This Thursday, a conference will take place in London, aimed at persuading the government that even more controls are needed – again, to “protect children.”

The UK Will Block Millions of Sites
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This Thursday, please use the #CensoredUK hashtag on Twitter, Facebook and other social media to register your opposition to any further moves to censor the Internet: the UK must have the same access to information as citizens in other democratic countries.

Here are some sample tweets you can copy and adapt… or just write your own (and don’t forget the hashtag). Let’s get this M***F**** trending!

  1. Join the #CensoredUK online day of action! Click for details: http://bit.ly/1aUtIsn
  2. Is the UK sleepwalking into censorship? http://onforb.es/1gYULrT #CensoredUK
  3. Cameron: UK will block “extremist” web sites http://bit.ly/1jMkeHv #CensoredUK
  4. Sky, TalkTalk, BT, Virgin to introduce Internet filters http://bbc.in/J4JNVX #CensoredUK
  5. China praises UK Internet censorship plans http://bit.ly/1hM5aKj #CensoredUK
  6. Tim Berners-Lee warns of Internet censorship rise http://bit.ly/19BfjRT #CensoredUK
  7. UK “porn filter” will also censor political speech http://bit.ly/18B4dfN #CensoredUK
  8. “Porn filter” will also block conspiracy theories http://bit.ly/IP1b0j #CensoredUK
  9. British companies are blocking gay websites http://bit.ly/J4Li6l #CensoredUK
  10. Why is the UK the most censored country in Europe? http://bit.ly/1hMfNwH #CensoredUK
  11. British Library censors Hamlet as “too violent” http://bbc.in/1e4QMfQ #CensoredUK

Is Anti-Sex Feminism a Step Backwards for Women’s Rights?

An article on anti-sex feminism by Jerry Barnett, founder of the Sex & Censorship campaign, which was published this week on the Feminist and Women’s Studies (UK & Ireland) blog:

Being in my late-40s, I’m one of a generation whose mothers embraced second-wave feminism – or Women’s Lib at it was better known at the time – in the late-1960s and early-70s. I came of age reading Spare Rib and other feminist magazines my Mum left lying around, and remember the importance of sexual liberation to the feminists of those days. In fact, those magazines constituted the first “porn” I encountered… (click here to read the full article).