All posts by Jerry Barnett

Major kink site Fetlife Forced to Censor Content

We received news today that Fetlife.com, a cornerstone of the global kink community, has been forced to remove vast amounts of content in order to stay in business.

My book Porn Panic!, published last year, warns of an imminent attack on sexual freedom and free speech. These things don’t exist in a vacuum: they are proxies for liberties that have been taken for granted in the western world for decades. The sexual expression I defend isn’t that important in its own right: what’s important is that sexual expression is the stone on which wannabe dictators sharpen their knives.

Now, with the authoritarian Trump administration taking power, and the promise of Internet censorship coming to the UK this year, there can be little doubt where things are going. Only a couple of weeks ago, Backpage.com was bullied into closing down its adult services advertising in the United States. Now, the assault on Fetlife confirms the direction of travel. Hold onto your hats, because this is going to get very very rough, very very fast. To support this campaign against censorship, please donate or buy Porn Panic! and help spread the word.

Below is the full announcement issued by Fetlife this week:

John Baku @ Fetlife posts:

Changes
by JohnBaku

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I have a lot to apologize for; I apologize for the cryptic announcement I made last Tuesday. I apologize for the deletion of 100s of groups and 1,000s of fetishes without any warning, let alone sufficient notice. I apologize for not making this announcement earlier and leaving everyone in the dark, and most importantly, I apologize for letting many of you down.

I wish we could have done things differently, but even upon reflection, I believe we did what we had to do to protect the community and FetLife with the information we had when we made each decision along the way.

Before making any decisions, we consulted with multiple parties. We consulted with the team, partners, financial institutions, the NCSF (National Coalition for Sexual Freedom), the FSC (Free Speech Coalition), lawyers, and anyone else we thought might have insight for us.

So, why did we make the announcement last Tuesday? Why did we remove some of the content we removed over the last 3-4 days? And, why didn’t we delete some of the content a lot sooner?

Everything falls under one of three categories: financial risk, legal risk, and community risk.

Let’s first talk quickly about the financial risk and get it out of the way because I don’t want it to detract from the high priority issues i.e. the legal and community risks.

The Financial Risk
A merchant account is what allows us to process credit cards on FetLife. The ads you see on FetLife covers the cost of approximately 1/2 the cost of our servers and bandwidth – that’s it.

Your support pays for the other half of the servers, plus the team that keeps FetLife up and running, lawyers, accountants, software, etc. So your support pays for the vast majority of FetLife’s monthly expenses.

Hence, without a merchant account, FetLife runs at a loss every month – and we are not talking a couple of dollars a month, we are talking significant losses.

Last Tuesday we got a notice that one of our merchant accounts was shutting us down. One of the card companies contacted them directly and told the bank to stop processing for us. The bank asked for more information, but the only thing they could get from the card company was that part of it had to do with “blood, needles, and vampirism.”

Like me, you are probably thinking, but they have to give you a good reason? No, no they don’t. The only thing they have to do is protect their interests sadly.

Because we couldn’t get any more information than that, we had to act quickly and preemptively protect our other merchant account by making changes to our content guidelines. But since we were very much in the dark, we didn’t think it would be a good idea to go into any more detail than we did at that point.

Three days later, we get another notice, this time from our other merchant account. They got a similar call from the same card company, and they were asked to close our account. This time they were told it was for “Illegal or Immoral” reasons.

Both of the bank’s compliance departments thought it was prudent to close our accounts down even though they were only contacted by one of the card brands so not to risk being fined from both card brands.

The banks maintain a shared list that contains all merchant account closings. The card brand also required the banks to add us to the list which will make it tough for us to ever get a merchant account again, at least for the foreseeable future.

Hence we can no longer process credit cards on FetLife and will most likely not be able to for a while.

The Legal Risk
Over the last five days, we’ve had the opportunity to speak to multiple organizations, each with part of the puzzle.

There are numerous things at play here:

A highly publicized rape case in Australia involving a member of the community;
An organization that participated in the anti-porn bill that wants to see sites like FetLife taken off the internet;
Talk of reviving the obscenity task force in the US;
The Digital Economy bill in the UK that’s being debated currently;
BPjM in Germany; and
We’ve been one of the most liberal, if not the most liberal, adult site on the web which makes us the perfect target;
We can put our heads in the sand, but that is both naive and irresponsible. All of the above have real legal risks attached to them with potentially equally real consequences. Maybe not to you directly but it does to FetLife, the team behind FetLife, and myself.

The Community Risk
The one thing that bonds us all together is our love for the kinky community. Without the kinky community, without sites like FetLife, many of us would not have a place to call home, a place in which we are accepted and understood, and dare I say a place in which we feel free to be ourselves.

If we hope to win the war, if we want our society to be more accepting of us, then we can’t give them a reason to vilify us. People always need someone to blame, and we need to stop making ourselves the easy target.

On what seems like a daily basis, we hear of another atrocious sex or hate crime committed against a fellow friend. And for every story we hear, there are tens of thousands we never hear about. As a community, we need to stop turning a blind eye.

One of the ways to do that is through defining a better list of guidelines that we live by as a community.

Changes Ahead
At first, it bothered me that we would have to tighten our rules because I felt I was letting people down. But after discussing potential changes with the NCSF, CFP, lawyers, and our merchant providers, I couldn’t help but be excited for the community and FetLife’s future.

Maybe I’m just a naive optimist, but I believe this is an opportunity for us to set the bar higher. These changes affect many of us, to one degree or another, but I think the sacrifices some of us will have to make will be worth it in the grand scheme of things.

Both FetLife and the NCSF believe that the proposed changes will give us the opportunity to flourish as a community while better protecting ourselves from outside attack.

With the help of the NCSF, lawyers, partners, and merchant providers, we came up with the following pillars that will make up our guidelines:

Nothing non-consensual (abduction, rape, etc.)
Nothing that impairs consent (drugs, alcohol, etc.)
No permanent or lasting damage (snuff, lacerations, deep cutting, etc.)
No hate speech (Nazi roleplay, race play, etc.)
Nothing that falls under obscenity (incest, etc. )
These guidelines aren’t intended to be a negative comment against your kink or your fantasies. Some things we believe can be done ethically, like CNC or hypnosis, but they can also be considered nonconsensual in a legal context, and we have to take into account the opinions of the authorities and merchant accounts as well to not only survive but thrive as a community.

Non-Consensual Deletion of Content from FetLife
Why did we act without first announcing changes and without first notifying anyone who would be affected? I know many of you might not believe me when I say this, but it was for our protection.

Yes, it was mainly for FetLife’s and my protection, and we had to act swiftly. One could easily argue that we didn’t move swift enough and that I shouldn’t even make this post because something in it might incriminate FetLife or me.

It’s always been a delicate balancing act. We try our best to balance the needs of individual members, the community as a whole, the team, and FetLife itself.

Everyone’s needs are not always balanced equally. Historically we’ve sided more with individual members needs, but what we’ve learned from recent events is that we need to start putting more weight on the safety of the community, FetLife, and the team behind FetLife – including my personal safety.

Next Steps
We are still going through FetLife to see if anything else needs to be removed or cleaned up. While going through this exercise, we are using the different situations we encounter to help us better define where we need to draw a line.

We hope to be able to publish our new content guidelines shortly as well as implement changes to caretaking so that we don’t ever find ourselves in a similar situation again.

After that, we need to work to repair any relationships we might have ruined with members both inside and outside the community.

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Will the BBFC Block Whores of Yore, A Sex Work History Site?

Whores of Yore is a website, run by academic Kate Lister, which describes itself as follows: “We are proudly sex-positive. An inter-disciplinary, pro-sex worker rights hub, dedicated to exploring the history of human sexuality and challenging shame and stigma.” (Here’s the link – please note it’s a teensy bit NSFW, at least if your boss is a religious fundamentalist or an anti-sex feminist).

The UK Will Block Millions of Sites
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Kate Lister

Along with intelligent writing and resources on sex work issues, the site includes a gallery of Vintage Erotica (click at your peril!) which ranges from topless imagery to some quite naughty stuff. Who knew our great-great grannies were getting up to this sort of thing? Few people would consider these images to be pornographic but then, porn is such a tricky thing to define.

Unswayed by this apparent problem, the government has promised (in the current Digital Economy Bill) to block pornography unless it’s behind an age verification check (one that forces you to enter your credit card, mobile phone or other personal details). So what definition of porn does the bill use?

The bill defines porn as video, imagery or audio that the BBFC (the video censor which will now become the Internet censor) would classify at either 18 or R18 certificate. And while R18 refers to explicit, hardcore action, 18 is reserved for the soft stuff: faked sex, striptease and even simple nudity, if the censors decide that it might be titillating. An added level of complication is that the BBFC only currently classifies video, not imagery. And as for audio… what do they consider audio porn to consist of? Well, we’ll soon find out.

The problem is that this breathtakingly broad definition of pornography will catch millions of sites that range far beyond pornography. So how about Whores of Yore? Since it’s a blog that doesn’t (and effectively can’t) age-check its users, will it break the law when it comes into effect? Will it be blocked? Will Kate Lister be paraded naked through the streets of London and pelted with rotten fruit? OK, the last one probably (and disappointingly) won’t happen.

So Kate contacted the BBFC, the UK’s soon-to-be Internet censor with a simple question: will she be a criminal, and will her site be blocked, under the new regime? After all, these rules are set to become law within a few months, and have been under discussion for years. Predictably, the BBFC responded to say they simply can’t answer:

“Work in this area has not yet begun and so we are not in a position to advice [sic] you on your website.  Pages 23 and 24 of our Classification Guidelines detail the standards applied when classifying sex works at 18 and R18 however and may be of interest to you.”

To save you the time of checking the BBFC’s online guidelines, let me assure you that they’re as useful as a chocolate dildo. Actually, far less useful than that. So either the BBFC really doesn’t know which sites it will be blocking later this year, or (and this seems more likely) it doesn’t want to admit that the law is so loosely drafted that almost anything might be blocked, at a whim.

And the response hints that the BBFC’s remit may soon go far beyond nude imagery (my highlight):

“Under its letters of designation the BBFC may not classify anything that may breach criminal law, including the Obscene Publications Act (OPA) as currently interpreted by the Crown Prosecution Service”

So we need to stop obsessing on the censorship of “niche porn”, which has served as a distraction from the main story. This is a blueprint for a state censor that can block anything it likes.

If you run a website, and are worried it may breach UK law, please contact the BBFC and ask whether you may be criminalised, or have your site blocked. It’s unacceptable, this late in the day, that the BBFC doesn’t know what content it’s going to censor. Let me know how they respond.

Hookers, Camgirls and Pornstars: Your Country Needs You!

If you are in any way involved in the adult industries, your income and lifestyle will come under attack in 2017. You can support this campaign with two minutes of your time – see below.

Although the Sex & Censorship campaign was founded to counter the “porn panic” – the endless stream of anti-porn, pro-censorship hysteria – it’s about much more than that. There is a rising tide of intolerance to niche cultures, and it is leaking into every part of society. This has been the trend for at least a decade, but rather than show any signs of peaking, the new fascism is gathering pace.

Sex and drugs have been the first in the path of the bulldozer. A string of stupid porn laws has been matched by a parade of equally ludicrous drug bans: from the 2005 ban on magic mushrooms to last year’s laughable ban on laughing gas. These laws aren’t designed to prevent harm, but to empower the state to intrude ever deeper into private lives. This year’s Digital Economy Bill will allow the state, for the first time, to block websites of its own choosing, without the tiresome need to ask the courts for permission.

If you make money from sex, your lifestyle is under particular threat. 2017 will see countless adult websites blocked in the UK. You can support this campaign by sparing two minutes of your time: print this image of the Porn Panic! book cover, share a selfie, and ask your fans to buy the book. It’s available from Amazon and all the other usual places.

Or simply share the book link: bit.ly/pornpanic

The UK Will Block Millions of Sites
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Thanks – Jerry

Censorship in the Identity Era

In these unpredictable political times, one thing is certain: there isn’t any campaign (even the US presidential election) that can’t be hijacked and trampled by identity politics. As I wrote previously, identity politics is the vehicle via which the privileged middle-classes make everything about themselves. And so inevitably, and depressingly, every important issue gets quickly taken over and turned into an identity issue. If the issue isn’t actually sexist, homophobic, racist, or whatever, never fear: they’ll say it is anyway.

So of course, no sooner does the government announce that it will giving the BBFC the power to block websites (a power virtually unheard of in democratic countries), than identitarians are elbowing their way to the front of the victim queue, determined to make it all about them.

A particularly bad example of this is floating around social media – an article in Dazed by Jake Hall, entitled Why the UK’s new laws could destroy queer & female-led porn. The premise is basic nonsense – there is nothing in the new laws that could justify this claim. In fact, there is no evidence given in the article that this is true either, other than a couple of vague quotes that support the headline. In an attempt to nip this sort of stuff in the bud (I failed), I wrote a piece a while back to explain why the BBFC’s rules aren’t sexist – they’re much worse than that.

Furthermore, Hall’s article is literally riddled with inaccuracies and confusion. The very first sentence repeats an old myth: “According to recent figures, the global porn industry is currently worth around $97billion.” This is a claim I cover in my book Porn Panic!, and is one that was fabricated some time ago, and is regularly used by by anti-porn campaigners. Hall doubles down on his mistake by sourcing his claim to fightthenewdrug.org, a notorious anti-porn site with religious links.

Hall also states that “[t]hese acts are yet to be officially defined” – this isn’t true – the BBFC guidelines for porn have been in place for years. He goes on to repeat more anti-porn myths, such as “Anybody with any experience of porn knows that a vast majority of it depicts muscular men and petite, shaven women” (well, at least we know what Jake likes to watch); and that old favourite of anti-porn activists, stating that it is… “true that our porn use does need to be monitored – there’s a lucrative market for child and non-consensual pornography growing daily” (Really Jake? Please provide some statistics to back that – preferably ones that don’t come from a religious anti-porn site).

So under the guise of being all nice and inclusive to “oppressed” identity groups, Hall ends up apparently supporting the worst aspect of the new censorship laws, age verification, under which millions of sites containing sexual imagery may be blocked under the bogus excuse of “protecting children”.

Although the new left likes to imagine that it challenges the “status quo”, it has failed to notice that is has become the status quo. Much of today’s censorship regime is crafted by the left’s identity-and-diversity obsession, rather than by the Tory establishment of old. Today’s censorship organisations have diversity built it to their very cores. Every body that makes censorship decisions today – especially Ofcom, the UK’s super-censor – has been created for an era of identity politics, and are impeccable in their meeting of diversity targets.

And many of the censorship rules imposed by Ofcom and the BBFC are specifically targeted at protecting women and minorities from “offensive” language. The BBFC guidelines state:

Potentially offensive content relating to matters such as race, gender, religion, disability or sexuality may arise in a wide range of works, and the classification decision will take account of the strength or impact of their inclusion. The context in which such content may appear also has a bearing. Works with such content may receive a lower category where discriminatory language and behaviour is implicitly or explicitly criticised; or the work as a whole seeks to challenge such attitudes”

The reality of the new laws is that a massive censorship regime is under construction to increase the state’s control over free expression; not in order to oppress women and minorities, but partly under the pretext of protecting them. Tragically, the great equality battles of the 1960s have been turned into yet another excuse for state control and middle-class bullying.

My book Porn Panic! details the rise of the authoritarian new left and its determination to censor everything.

Podcast 14: Jerry at BBFC HQ

For a long time, I’ve predicted that the “porn panic” was leading to mass website blocking. Recently, this very measure was introduced to the draft Digital Economy Bill. Britain is set to be the world’s first democracy with a powerful Internet censor. So I went to BBFC HQ in Soho Square to rant about it. This is the audio version – the video is on our YouTube channel.

Buy Some Free Speech This Xmas

The UK state will begin censoring the web in 2017 – and almost nobody has noticed. Online free speech as we’ve known it for over 25 years is about to come under fundamental assault. The Digital Economy Bill, currently going through Parliament, will become law in 2017. It contains a little section about “protecting children from pornography”. And who could disagree with that? But this isn’t about porn, or child protection: it’s a power grab by the state, which wants to control the Internet as it does TV and video.

From next year, a state-approved private company (the BBFC), funded with £millions of taxpayers money, will have the power to block websites that it considers pose a “threat to children”. Initially, this related to sites containing sexual or erotic images, video or even audio. But we know it won’t stop there. Porn is the testing ground for one of the greatest attacks on free speech in British history. This campaign has worked for three years to inform the press and public about a disguised threat to Internet freedom.

It is vital that we continue to educate journalists, politicians and the public on what this law is actually about: censorship. I can’t continue this work without your help. Please donate to support Sex & Censorship – donations above £20 will receive a signed copy of my book Porn Panic!, which documents how the “porn threat” is used as an excuse to attack sexual freedom and free speech in the UK.

Jeremy Hunt’s Curious Sexting Ban

(This article first appeared in the i newspaper under the title “A proposed ban on teen sexting is just another excuse to spy on our phones”)

Taken in isolation, Jeremy Hunt’s suggestion that teenage “sexting” should be banned might seem like one of those quaintly out-of-touch things that fuddy-duddy Tory ministers tend to say. After all, a generation of teens have had access to camera phones and smartphones, and have (unsurprisingly) used them to share photos and videos of their naughty bits. And teens were the first adopters of SMS 20 years ago, and (also unsurprisingly) used the technology to send each other dirty messages. Hunt’s target group, everybody under 18, is an odd suggestion, given the age of consent is 16.

And then, when you take a moment to consider how such a ban could be implemented, you realise just how ludicrous the suggestion is. Does Hunt seriously think that mobile phone networks, WhatsApp, Apple, Facebook, Gmail and a plethora of other platforms should all install technology to ensure that under-18s don’t send each other sexual content? And if they do, then what happens when they catch a repeat offender? Do the morality police arrest them, and perhaps take them away for a programme of modesty and decency training?

But although the temptation is to gently mock politicians who say such silly things, such outbursts should be taken seriously, especially in the current authoritarian climate. As I outline in my book Porn Panic!, sex is regularly used as an excuse to justify attacks on both privacy and free speech (terrorism being another favoured excuse). The Snoopers’ Charter represents the greatest attack on online privacy in any democratic country, ever. And the recent announcement that porn sites are to be blocked is also unprecedented in a “free” country. Britain is trying its best to become China.

If you’ve been paying attention for the past few years, you’ll have seen multiple government attempts to spy on, or block, Internet communications, using a variety of excuses. Perhaps the first example came during the 2011 riots, when the government and police blamed services like Blackberry Messenger and Facebook. Then in early 2015, in the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris, David Cameron threatened to block encrypted services like WhatsApp and iMessage. Twitter, a popular platform for free speech, regularly comes under attack by assorted moralists and control-freaks for not censoring its users enough. So far, these companies have – to their credit – largely resisted UK government attempts at intrusion, and even strengthened their encryption. They are mostly US-based, and protected by the US Constitution. This infuriates the UK authorities.

To implement Jeremy Hunt’s apparently simple anti-sexting proposal would require wide-scale automated spying using intelligent text-recognition and image-recognition technology. Such technology would, of course, be able to spot a far broader range of thoughtcrime than sexting. And once in place, of course mission creep would set in. Why not use it to identify drug users, tax evaders, or racists?

Some would argue that this is desirable: after all, if you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide, right? But if we are to introduce automated policing of speech and behaviour, and erode our right to privacy on this scale, we need a serious discussion in Parliament and beyond. Instead, our rights to privacy and free speech are being eroded step-by-step, in a series of small, quiet nudges.

In The Press

It’s been a busy week for me, following the (totally unsurprising) announcement that the BBFC will be getting the power to block websites that breach its own rules. Or to put it another way, a private organisation is going to be writing its own law and applying its own punishments without oversight from Parliament or the courts.

Below are some press links from the Guardian, Huffington Post and the Independent. These are article I’ve written or in which I’ve been quoted. I’ve also been on the radio, and have made a video on this subject.

 

Jerry Barnett on the Radio

The government announced last week that the BBFC is to be given powers to block websites. Regular readers of this blog (or of my book Porn Panic!) won’t find this announcement surprising.

This will create unprecedented powers for an internet censor in a democratic country; I’ve been discussing this on the radio – you can hear me at:

  • Today Programme debate vs Claire Perry MP, BBC Radio 4 (starts at minute 50)
  • Interview with Julia Hartley-Brewer for talkRADIO

To support my campaign work, buy Porn Panic! or donate to the campaign,