All posts by Jerry Barnett

Why Are We Protesting on March 15th?

Since the London protest was announced for March 15th, I’ve been asked by some UK pornstars what the event is about. Although Stop Porn Culture (SPC) is well known for its anti-sex campaigning in the US, it is a new introduction to the UK. Their conference next month is aimed at setting up a presence in this country.

SPC is the brainchild of Gail Dines, probably the most prolific anti-sex campaigner around today. She sells a fantasy world in which the all-powerful porn industry is plotting to turn everybody into promiscuous, sex addicted, pornstar wannabes. And she makes a good living from this, having written three books, and regularly featuring in the press and on the speaking circuit.

Dines claims to have studied the porn industry for over 20 years, but a quick read of her work reveals that she neither knows or cares how the industry works. Her job is to scare people into believing that the porn biz is huge and powerful and coming to destroy their children, and then use that fear to build her profile and bank balance. She spreads the usual anti-sex myths – such as porn addiction – and throws in a few of her own, like claiming the porn industry is worth $96 billion, when in reality it might be 2% that size. She is the hero who will take on and destroy the evil Porn Empire. But of course, she needs lots of money to fight this crusade. Although she claims to be a radical, Dines (like so many anti-porn feminists) finds more in common with the religious right than with progressives.

Like all supporters of censorship, Dines hates free speech, and her favourite tactic is to shut down debate. Last year, she attempted to get the industry XBIZ EU event shut down by calling for a boycott of Radisson hotels if they hosted it. Her letter to Radisson, like so much of what she writes, is a work of comic genius, and worth a read.

She attempted similar disruption to our protest of her event, leading her supporters to bombard our event page – which they did. Women who opposed them were attacked especially strongly. Although some supporters asked me to block the haters, I chose instead to support their right to free speech, and responded as follows:

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Dear Gail Dines and Stop Porn Culture:

Your coordinated spamming of this event page has been noted. Our response is as follows:

1) We note that we have rattled your cage; we must be doing something right.

2) Unlike you anti-porn fundamentalists, we believe in free expression, and have not acted to block you. We know that pro-porn people are not afforded this right by Stop Porn Culture or Gail Dines. We claim the moral high ground.

3) Although you claim to be on the side of “exploited” women in porn, we know that in reality, you attack them and refuse them a voice. We, on the other hand, represent the women and men who choose to fuck for a living. You will be hearing from them on March 15 in London.

As well as Dines, the conference will feature well known British anti-sex voices, including the journalist Julie Bindel and speakers from Object, which campaigns against everything from strip clubs to lads’ mags.

The purpose of the conference is to attack sexual expression in all of its forms, and to advance the censorship agenda. And the conference will deny the basic rights of women who choose to be pornstars, strippers and sex workers, which is why they will be protesting outside.

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Censoring Self-Harm Sites

One of the categories of content that is blocked by BT and other ISPs relates to self-harm. BT promises that its filters will block ‘sites that promote or encourage self-harm or self-injury’. But as ever, real life is far more nuanced than the headlines. One might be immediately repelled by the idea that THE INTERNET IS MAKING TEENAGERS CUT THEMSELVES (as the Daily Mail might express it), but does this reflect reality? Self-harm is an upsetting idea, but why do people do it, and can it blamed on websites? Alternatively, could sites that provide a forum for openly discussing the subject be therapeutic to those who use them? And are there really sites that exist simply to ‘promote or encourage’ people to self-harm?

One site related to self-harm is Safe Haven, a forum dedicated to discussing related issues, and a quick view of the site seemed to indicate this was an important resource to those who used it. Thread titles such as ‘I Want To Stop Self-Injuring Because…’, ‘To Every Soul That Suffers’, ‘How to deal with relapsing?’ and ‘I don’t know what to do’ indicated that this is a place for troubled people to find company and share their pain. Yet I found the site to be blocked on at least one network (EE).

The very idea that happy, stable people might find such a forum and thus become self-harmers seems (to me as a layperson) to be unlikely. More likely is that this is a classic example of shooting the messenger, which is an impulse that so often underlies censorship: perhaps if we can hide the bad things, they will no longer exist.

But I am no expert, so I approached Dr David Ley, a psychologist based in New Mexico and occasional blogger at this site, and asked him for his views on the site, and the wisdom of blocking it. He responded that, while some people fear that self-harming could escalate to something worse – even to suicide – the evidence appears to contradict this.

‘Although self-harming behavior is quite frightening and concerning, there is actually very little solid evidence that such behavior leads to suicide. In fact, it may be the exact opposite. We often intuitively expect that such behavior is “on the road” to building up to a suicide attempt. But, in fact, there are many reasons why people engage in such behaviors, and many of them are in fact, quite adaptive. For instance, over the years, I’ve had patients describe to me that such behavior can help them “ground themselves in reality,” when they are feeling psychically distant from themselves or the world. Others have told me that the pain can help themselves distance themselves from emotional pain.’

And as to the wisdom of trying to prevent troubled people from accessing such information:

‘It is unfortunate and likely counter-productive, to use filtering to try to prevent people from exploring all sides of this issue. It smacks of the old “Just say no” attempts to prevent drug use in children. Such efforts invariably fail, because children and teens know very well that such issues are not as two-dimensional as they are presented. By restricting access to information on sites such as this, which might glorify or encourage self-harming behaviors, filtering is also preventing access to dialogue and ideas from peers who are also attempting to control these desires. Such dialogue and ideas are much more likely to resonate with individuals who are struggling with self-harming desires themselves. Further, there is a great deal of information presented on the site that might be characterized as “harm reduction,” describing how to prevent infection, increase healing, and prevent serious injury. Again, a black and white presentation of the self-harm issue, as reflected by the filtering, actually may increase the dangers of such consequences in individuals who self-harm, and don’t have access to this information.’

I contacted Safe Haven to let them know that their site was being blocked. The site is based in the United States, and the owner seemed somewhat bemused to learn that her site had been censored in Britain. She pointed out that sites like hers are often the first place that troubled teenagers go to when they decide it is time to talk, and can be instrumental in helping them gain the confidence to speak with parents or health services:

‘Young people usually feel safer first reaching out online and getting support and advice from others in similar situations, or who can at least empathize. I feel some people might think young people should only be confiding in trusted adults like their parents or educators, or those manning helplines, but self-harm and mental health issues are taboo and cause such feelings of shame. Sites like mine allow young people to talk freely without worry that people will look at them askance for mentioning self-harm, or without worry they’ll be bullied for being a self-harmer. I see a lot of the members of the forum telling young people to reach out in real life.’

Free event-based dating for the UK
Jaunt.Singles

As in so many cases, the impulse to censor something that appears harmful may itself be harmful. The same applies to another blocked subcategory, ‘sites that encourage suicide’, which is, for some reason, tucked away within BT’s Weapons and Violence category. It seems highly unlikely that a non-suicidal person would find such a site and become suicidal; and it seems likely that a suicidal person may find the ability to share their feelings with others to be beneficial, and even life-saving.

The British are famous for our stiff-upper-lip culture, and yet according to the Mental Health Foundation, we also have among the highest self-harming rates in Europe. Perhaps the idea that difficult things are best not seen, heard or discussed is a dangerous one; but this is the driving force behind the UK’s Internet filters.

Letter to MPs on Criminalising “Rape Porn”

This week, the following letter was sent to a number of MPs and Lords, to raise concerns over the planned “rape porn” legislation. This was sent on behalf of Sex & Censorship and an alliance of other sexual freedom campaigns: Backlash, Consenting Adult Action Network, Campaign Against Censorship and the Sexual Freedom Coalition.

We write to express grave concern regarding S16 of the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill which will extend the existing ban on extreme pornography (S63 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act). This section is poorly defined. It will have the unintended consequence of criminalising the possession of material that depicts consensual sex, bondage and power-play fantasies common to millions.

Pornography of all kinds has become much more accessible since the Internet has become available to the general public. In that time, the prevalence of sexual abuse has not increased in the United Kingdom and may have decreased. It is simplistic & mistaken to suggest that pornography is a cause of violence against women. Correlation is not causation. Serious academic studies of pornography and sexual violence (1) show that increased availability of pornography is, in fact, associated with less violence and abuse.

Fictional and consensual portrayals of submission and domination are a common and popular sexual fantasy, as recently illustrated by the Fifty Shades of Grey novels. Indeed one of the largest surveys ever undertaken in Britain (2) indicated that nearly a third of us have fantasies about elements of forced sex, with approximately 2.2 million men and women having violent sexual fantasies. With around 90% of men and 60% of women viewing pornography, and with so many enjoying fantasies of this nature, the danger is that this poorly defined legislation will have a huge impact.

The Bill’s Impact Assessment suggests that the number of cases cannot be predicted. When extreme material was criminalised (by S63(7) CJIA 2008) government ministers predicted there would only be 30 cases a year, but the reality was very different. In the last year for which the MoJ has provided data (2012/13), there were 1,348 prosecutions. Given that the number of people who enjoy material that features sexual bondage and power-play is so high, we fear government will create thousands of new sex offenders, most of whom will be entirely harmless law-abiding citizens.

There is also a problem with government guidance for the public and prosecutors. Just prior to the enactment of S63(7) CJIA 2008, in response to reservations, the House of Lords was promised that meaningful guidance would be issued to explain those categories that were difficult to define. This never happened. In fact prosecutors were so unsure of the meaning of the law that there have been some trials of material which we are confident Parliament never intended. For example, the prosecution of barrister Simon Walsh, a former aide to Boris Johnson, whose legal practice had included investigating corruption within British police forces. His career in public life was ruined by a prosecution. It was rejected by a jury after 90 minutes deliberation. Prosecutors failed to prove that images depicting consensual sex acts between him and two other gay men were ‘extreme’.

The prosecution also threatened the reputation of the Crown Prosecution Service as an impartial public servant by showing that gay men risked having their lives destroyed in court over intimate acts which were consensual, safe and commonly practiced within the LGBT community. Bad laws do not harm only the individuals prosecuted; they also harm the institutions tasked with enforcing them, and increase even further the costs of the justice system to the taxpayer. This proposed law will also traumatise large numbers of women and men by having their private sexual fantasies examined and shamed in public.

Free event-based dating for the UK
Jaunt.Singles

It is therefore vital that S16 of this Bill be refined to limit the scope of the ban to images that are produced through real harm or lack of consent. Fantasy portrayals of forced/power-play sex are too commonly enjoyed to be reasonably subject to prohibition.

We appeal to you to refine this legislation. We also ask to be permitted to put detailed evidence to Parliament at the committee stages. Finally, we ask if you would be willing to host an event in Parliament, at which representatives could speak, so that members of both Houses can better understand what is at stake.

References.

1. Pornography, Public Acceptance and Sex Related Crime: A Review: 2009: Milton Diamond
2. British Sexual Fantasy Research Project: 2007. ISBN 978-0-713-99940-2

O2 and the Lack of Internet Filter Transparency

When the large ISPs rolled out their poorly-named “porn filters” in December, they all arrived missing an essential feature: a tool to check whether each filter blocked a specific URL or not. Without these tools from Sky, BT or TalkTalk, anti-filter campaigners resorted to using the only such service available, which happened to be from O2. O2, being a mobile provider, had actually been filtering content since 2004, but its URL checker (urlchecker.o2.co.uk) had largely been ignored for several years.

The storm of abuse that O2 received in December was therefore quite unfair: it was targeted, not for being the worst offender, but for being the most transparent of all the mobile and broadband Internet providers. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t long before O2 took its URL checking service offline; and although the company denies this was done to stop people sending angry tweets, the page is still offline today, displaying the message:

Our URL checker is currently unavailable as we are updating the site.

Perhaps the provider really is updating the site… but let’s not hold our breaths. If I were a manager at O2, I probably would have reached the same conclusion: there’s no point being transparent when transparency is bad for business. Every other ISP, watching O2‘s support Twitter ID get bombarded during early December, will have also decided not to offer an online URL checker. Quite simply, market forces will punish any provider that breaks from the pack and provides information about how its filter works, and which sites it blocks.

It is therefore disgraceful that the government allowed the filtering to be put in place without mandating provider transparency. Countless sites have undoubtedly been blocked in error, but it is very difficult to find out which ones are blocked by which providers.

Sadly, we cannot expect Claire Perry MP, who is responsible for this mess, to call for this problem to be remedied. Transparency will reveal the huge extent of overblocking, which will be as bad for her career as it is for ISPs’ reputations.

It is up to the public to expose this deliberate suppression of information, and to shame government into action. If you care about Internet freedom, please tweet BT, TalkTalk, Sky, David Cameron and Claire Perry to ask why we cannot easily see what is being censored; and also ask O2 when their URL checker will be back online. Use the #CensoredUK hashtag in your tweets, and we will retweet them!

UK Government Admits Filters Have Failed

Poor old Claire Perry. Having championed Internet censorship child-protection filters, and become a hero to the Tory right and Daily Mail, she appears to have pissed off much of the remainder of the online public. She has steadfastly denied that filters are prone to massive and eternal overblocking, calling such claims “fanciful” only a few days ago. But, as long predicted, overblocking is a huge problem, and as anybody with an understanding of the technology can explain to Perry and Cameron, it can’t ever be adequately resolved: the problem is just too big.

Perry and Cameron have regularly insisted that ISPs can be left to run filters without need for regulation. So it must be enormously embarrassing for them that the UK Government this week announced plans to introduce – in a small way – regulation. In response to an avalanche of news about inappropriate blocking – from ChildLine to the Samaritans – the government has announced it will create a white-list of sites that must not be blocked.

The clear motivation for this is to avoid any more embarrassing news stories highlighting how inaccurate the filters are. The government can’t hope to prevent overblocking any more than the ISPs can, but at least they can ensure that key UK charities are not blocked. This announcement is an admission of failure.

But this move should not be greeted as a step in the right direction. In order to create and manage the white-list, the government needs to create – at taxpayer expense – an Internet censorship team, albeit one with a limited role, for the time being. The new list cannot possibly hope to resolve the majority of blocking errors – all it can do is ensure a small, elite list of websites remains accessible to under-18s.

Overblocking isn’t the main problem, filters are

So overblocking will continue – it just won’t attract as much media attention as before. But even if it could be resolved, this white-list avoids the critical concerns about the filters: overblocking isn’t the real problem. The problem is – still – the filters themselves.

The government still insists on perpetuating the dangerous myth that children are in danger online, and that the answer to this danger is censorship. It continues to pretend there is evidence that allowing children to explore the Internet can be harmful. It continues to ignore the fact that parental control software for PCs has been available for years, and child-friendly tablets are now on sale everywhere, making the need for further filtering redundant. It continues to spread the myth that denying children access to information is safe, rather than harmful. It continues to blur the very important line between young adults and pre-pubescent children. It continues to provide abusers a tool with which to deny their wife, husband, child, access to vital information.

The government admitted this week that the filtering programme has failed. But they maintain the pretence that the failure is a small one, and can be easily repaired. A government white-list will resolve these problems just as well as a severed limb can be repaired using a Post-It note.

If the UK government truly cares about child welfare, it will defend the right of teenagers to freely access the Internet, and it will educate parents as to how they can protect and educate their younger children. Of course they won’t: and meanwhile, they have created a new censorship function within government that we should be watching very carefully indeed.

A Stripper Writes to Object

The morality group Object has long campaigned against striptease as well as other forms of sexual expression. Although they claim to be a “women’s rights” organisation, they show notable disdain – even at times, hate – towards the women in the sex industries. Object show no apparent interest in listening to the “poor, abused women” that they claim they are saving from exploitation.

This week, Object founder Anna van Heeswijk published a Guardian article listing five reasons why the strip industry must be attacked using further legislation. In response Vera Rodriguez, a Spanish stripper working in London, wrote the following letter.

Lapdancing clubs need to listen to the voices of the dancers. Here is why:

A response to Ms Heeswick letter, from a dancer’s perspective. Your ‘5 reasons’ easily refuted and more.

Dear Ms Heeswick, after reading your article published yesterday, I would like to answer to each of your reasons…

1. Lap dancing clubs market women as sexual objects for male gratification

Let me question your affirmation, Do lap dancing clubs market women as sexual objects for male gratification?

My answer is NO, in big capital letters. If so, how can an object dance with high heels and do pole dancing tricks? Behind every action of every worker there is a human being taking decisions for themselves. If somebody makes us “objects” is obviously your organization.

Dancers we are entertainers and so far, all workers work for money and that is what we do, entertainment for an audience that pays for our bills.

I also have to make a point to your state. The presence of strip clubs does definitely not increase the demand for “prostitution” but it offers a complete different service. I assume that you take prostitution –that I will call ‘sex work’ as something ‘lower’ than stripping but as a stripper I will not compare to others workers in a way that creates a hierarchy.

2. Women who work in lap dancing are routinely subjected to harassment, exploitation and the expectation of sexual services

Let me question your honesty about the definition “Object” as a human rights organization. To me, it is pure demagogy as it is only trying to make us -the female workers- more vulnerable. If more strip clubs disappear in these hard times of recession and less chances to get other jobs, do you think that is real feminism? As you thought you know what is best for us, let me also advice you to put your energy and your dubious anger in creating more jobs for women, not trying to take away jobs that we decided to do. We are thousands of mothers, migrants, students, fighters, activists and so on, as every one of us has a story to tell. I cant help but laugh sourly at your research with 14 years in the industry at my back.

Real feminism should defend women’s choices. It is not about privileged women eager for some kind of leadership thinking that they know what is best for the rest of us.

Yes, it is true that we have to pay house fees which, increased dramatically after the so called “feminists” like you pushed for a tough legislation that is not even enough for you now. That made us work in what is called now “sexual entertainment venues” and increased dramatically the price of licensing that clubs have to pay. Thanks for making my life –and other women’s life tougher, feminists!

To finish with this point, I will highlight that you try to prove your perspective with what you describe as ‘one woman’ that she felt it was the hardest job that she ever did. I could name hundreds of women that we are still in the industry by choice but as you only mention one, to mention myself is more than enough. Still, I will mention some collectives that support my statement.

3. Lap dancing clubs create a threatening environment for women and girls who live in the areas around the clubs

You support your answer again referring to “one woman that told Object” Can I meet her? Where is she? In which area does she live? Because in my whole career I have generally worked in places that are much more discreet than any other “normal pub” can be. Again, Ms van Heeswijk, why don’t you give more evidence? Is it because you truly lack of knowledge?

4. Councils can still operate under legislation that equates lap dancing clubs with restaurants and karaoke bars

I don’t question your question here when you say that councils can still operate under legislation that equals lap dancing clubs with restaurants and karaoke bars. I just want to ask you why are you so offended? Is it not a karaoke bar a place where people perform which is what I do in my shifts? As long as it is adult consent, which happens to be the case, I don’t think I need to ask permission to work in any neighbor hood, sorry. Can you name where the strip clubs are, Ms van Heeswijk? Sorry to question what I doubt. I have worked in places where even the neighbor hood did not notice that there was a stripping venue. This licensing requirement is only making our lives harder. Do you really want to ‘help’ strippers? Ok, help me to remove our house fees by not asking a special license.

5. Bars and pubs can get around the licensing regime by holding sexual entertainment events on an ‘occasional basis’

On your last ‘reason’ you assert that Bars and Pubs can get around the licensing regime by holding entertainment events on occasional basis. Let me ask you again why does it bother you so much that event workers work on event occasions? Why to make it more difficult to both organizers and dancers that we agree to work? Why not focus on protecting our rights as workers? Why don’t you fight stigma with us instead of us being your target?

Please Ms Van Heeswijk, other members of Object as certain kind of feminism, don’t be patronizing with other women. Start including sex workers and trans women in your out of date discourses. If you don’t agree with my decisions I simply do not care. But if you try to make my job even harder than it is, this letter will only be the beginning.

Signed: An angry stripper and…

Filtering: Definition of Irony?

Home of Democracy?
Home of Democracy? (Image license info)

While browsing some old emails, I discovered the invitation to Claire Perry’s “let’s censor the Internet” committee (or a “parliamentary inquiry into the online protection of children”, as it was formally known). The email begins with this delightful intro:

“Dear Mr Barnett – apologises for sending this via gmail unfortunately the Parliament I.T. systems do not allow us to send and recieve emails to strictly broadband. I do hope the below is something you can consider. Please respond using my gmail email. Many thanks, …”

Parliament, like many large organisations, had already implemented filtering on its Internet connections; how many children are protected by this mechanism is unclear, but obviously MPs cannot be trusted to have open access to the network.

Perry has spent the past two years arguing vigorously that overblocking rarely occurs and is easily dealt with; yet evidence to the contrary was already staring her in the face. If Parliament can’t even get a porn filter right, how is the entire country supposed to do so?

Who Will Defend Hate Speech?

Bang On Target
Bang On Target

Defending the right of people to publish and watch porn is an uphill battle. Nice, “liberal” people aren’t always as liberal as they think, and many think sexual imagery is a Bad Thing, and shouldn’t fall under the umbrella of free expression. So there was a strong boost for the anti-censorship movement in December when the UK “porn filters” were rolled out, and it turned out that they weren’t really much to do with porn at all.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much of a genuine free speech lobby in this country (it was the discovery of this fact that led me to set up the Sex & Censorship campaign). However, the filters blocked such broad areas of content that far more vocal groups have been spurred into opposition, and have strengthened the anti-censorship movement. The revelation that a number of gay sites had been blocked, apparently in error, led to outrage from the LGBT community and its supporters. And the inclusion of Sex Education as a category that parents could prevent their teens from accessing caused outrage among many commentators.

The animal protection organisation World Wildlife Fund adopted the panda as its symbol, rather than some endangered species of lizard or beetle, because pandas look cuddly. Saving ugly creatures isn’t a cause that many people will donate to. In the world of anti-censorship campaigning, LGBT and sex education causes are the panda; and yet, many of the “uglier” blocked categories should be just as much a cause for concern as the “pretty” ones. But if people accept that some expression can be censored, then free speech is lost.

Many of the blocked categories have been ignored because they don’t upset any large lobby group, but they should be cause for concern. I have seen no defence, for example for “sites that give information on illegal drugs”. Yet such sites save lives, and fill a role that, in a more sane world, would be carried out by government. The site pillreports.com, for example, is a database of ecstasy tablets on the market. As the site says: ‘Pills sold as “Ecstasy” often include other, potentially more dangerous, substances such as methamphetamine, ketamine and PMA.’ Filtering of drug information doesn’t protect anyone, but simply enforces an anti-drug morality. If allowed to continue, this filtering will doubtless cost teenage lives.

“Sites that promote self-harm” may make for good Daily Mail headlines, but people in distress most need a community of people who understand them. Isolating troubled young people from each other can only be a recipe for disaster. “Sites that describe guns” are also on the list, and illustrate the constant confusion between expression and the physical world. America’s gun lobbyists try to claim that “guns don’t kill people”; this is patent nonsense. Guns do kill people: but there’s no evidence that pictures or descriptions of guns do, and in fact guns are shown daily on TV, often in glamorised ways, without any evidence that this leads to real-world violence.

The option to block social networking sites is perhaps one of the most sinister of all. Depriving children of social contact may be classified as emotional abuse, and yet, because of the endless panic over “online grooming”, many parents may exercise this option. The best way to open a child to the possibility of grooming is to keep them ignorant of the real world. The filters will harm children.

The “file sharing” category is not there to protect children at all, but to protect media corporations from having their content pirated, and probably the result of some clever lobbying activity. Piracy is the problem of the media and entertainment industry, and is a poor excuse for censorship.

The catch-all category of “tasteless and obscene” is another one that preserves conservative ideas of morality, rather than attempt to protect children. Among other things, it includes the ludicrous concept of “how to commit murder”; one would think any teenager conversant with basic physics, chemistry or biology would be able to work that out. Presumably the banning of science classes in school must follow. This category also includes “bathroom humour”, though one must suspect that children can work out fart jokes by themselves, without help from the Internet.

The list goes on and on. In every case, it seems that blocking content can do more damage to child development than the content itself. The category that most divides people is that of hate speech: “sites that encourage the oppression of people or groups based on their race, religion, gender, age, disability, sexual orientation or nationality”. The idea that racism, homophobia and other prejudices can be dealt with by censorship has been fashionable for a few decades, and is attractive to people who dislike prejudice. And yet it is a false promise. Censorship of words that might offend minorities has never solved any underlying problem. Discourse is the solution to bigotry, and this must include angry, “offensive” discourse, however unpleasant it is. Politically correct cures for prejudice do not work; indeed, they leave problems to fester and get worse.

This isn’t to say that prejudice should be left alone: education, discussion, debate, argument and, most of all, leadership are essential. We have a government that wants to protect us from “hate speech” on the one hand, while hinting on the other that immigrants are a threat to our society. Hate can be spread without using hate speech.

And those who think that censorship introduced for “good” reasons will not then be abused are naive in the extreme. The core problem with censorship is that it will always be abused by those with power. Once it is accepted that hateful speech can be suppressed, then the definition of hateful speech will grow inexorably until it is unrecognisable.

Voltaire said: “I do not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. Those who are tempted to draw acceptable lines for Internet filtering are missing the point. In a free society, there can be no acceptable lines.

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.

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

#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.

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!