Category Archives: Legal

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).

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.

The UK Will Block Millions of Sites
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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.

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John O’Neill: The British Man Banned From Having Sex

This blog has long documented ways in which the British anti-sex movement has set out to stigmatise legal, consensual sex between adults. By establishing a series of porn-panic concepts, from the odd idea that we’re all being “sexualised” to the recent insistence that porn is a “public health crisis”, the movement has laid the groundwork for politicians and police to begin rolling back recent advances in sexual freedom. The story of John O’Neill is among the most bizarre of all recent cases.

O’Neill was accused of rape, but swiftly found not guilty in court. Nonetheless, the judge requested that police continue to treat him as a threat to women. O’Neill must now give police 24 hours notice before having sexual contact with anyone; this apparently includes flirting or kissing. It appears that John O’Neill’s “crime” was nothing more than an interest in BDSM with consenting adults.

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This excellent article in Reprobate magazine explains this unprecedented attack on an innocent man’s human rights.

UK Committee Recommends Sex Work Decriminalisation (Kinda)

British sex workers are jubilant as the parliamentary sex work inquiry, led by Labour MP Keith Vaz, has recommended scrapping laws restricting the sale of sex in the UK. While sex work is legal, sex workers have long called for complete decriminalisation.  In particular, sex work activists have pointed at the brothel-keeping law which effectively prevents two or more women working together for safety.

The statement includes a quote from Vaz which strongly recommends the scrapping of these laws:

“Treating soliciting as a criminal offence is having an adverse effect, and it is that sex workers, who are predominantly women, should be penalised and stigmatised in this way. The criminalisation of sex workers should therefore end.

The current law on brothel keeping also means sex-workers can be too afraid of prosecution to work together at the same premises, which can often compromise their safety.”

This is fantastic for those who have campaigned to make life safer for sex workers. There are caveats, however:

“There must however be zero tolerance of the organised criminal exploitation of sex workers, and changes to legislation should not lessen the Home Office’s ability to prosecute those engaged in exploitation.”

So, for example, it is unclear whether a partner of a sex worker who works from home might still be criminalised. Such a statement suggests that full decriminalisation is not, in fact, on the cards – rather a loosening of existing laws. Nonetheless, life is set to become easier and safer for sex workers in general.

However, this is an interim statement, and there is a huge omission: the committee has yet to determine whether sex buyers will be criminalised under the so-called Nordic Model, which has been implemented in Sweden, Northern Ireland, and most recently in France.

“The Committee will evaluate a number of the alternative models as this inquiry continues, including the sex-buyers law as operated in Sweden, the full decriminalised model used in Denmark, and the legalised model used in Germany and the Netherlands.”

As I reported in my article about France, the introduction of the Nordic model was dishonestly presented as decriminalisation. A Twitter user suggested to me that:

“France is not banning prostitution actually quite the contrary. We are banning the buying of sex and de-criminilising prostitutes” [sic]

So the language of decriminalisation is malleable and slippery. Since “decriminalisation” has become a popular word, so prohibitionists have adopted it and changed its meaning. Shifting the legal burden from workers to clients is not, of course, decriminalisation – it just uses different tools to achieve the same ends; it would also make a mockery of a new law that allows brothels to be kept, but doesn’t allow anyone to visit them.

The UK Will Block Millions of Sites
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So there is certainly great cause for celebration, but perhaps the most important decision has been left to a later date. We await with interest.

Pornographer Pandora Blake Wins Battle, but Free Speech is Losing the War

First, here’s the good news. Porn-maker Pandora Blake announced yesterday that her fetish website, Dreams of Spanking, will be switched back on, following a decision by Ofcom that it did not, after all, fall within their remit. The site had previously been targeted by the video-on-demand regulator ATVOD on the basis that it lacked age verification controls, and contained content that was harder than would legally be allowed under the UK’s insipid DVD regulations. In January, ATVOD was closed down, and its powers brought within Ofcom, the UK’s media regulator and censor.

Blake’s appeal was one that has been successfully used a number of times since the video-on-demand (AVMS) regulations were introduced in 2010. AVMS is an EU framework designed specifically to regulate TV-like video-on-demand services. ATVOD, however, attempted to stretch the definition of “TV-like” as far as possible, in order to shore up its own income and power. Its first overreach, in 2011, was an attempt to define newspaper websites as TV-like, and thus bring news content within its remit. A raft of publications, led by the Sun, appealed that their content was not TV-like. Ofcom agreed with them, and ATVOD was forced to back down.

Playboy TV attempted to make a similar appeal with regard to its websites, but lost. The first porn site to successfully appeal was Urban Chick – Supremacy Cell (UC-SC – listen to my podcast interview with the site’s owner). So UC-SC became the only porn site legally allowed to remain in the UK without having to meet ATVOD’s stringent rules. Dreams of Spanking now becomes the second such site. So we have the bizarre situation where exactly two websites are legally allowed to operate in the UK without Ofcom’s oversight. Can this continue? No.

Here’s the not-so-good news. Blake’s site is probably the last porn site to wriggle through the “not TV-Like” loophole, and its reprieve is a temporary one. Yesterday’s media celebrations are overblown. For example, in Broadly: Feminist Porn Director Gets Big Spanking Win for Fetish Sites. But this isn’t true. It is extremely unlike that any more fetish sites will be following UC-SC and Dreams of Spanking into libertarian paradise. And furthermore, those two sites have only won a short stay.

Ofcom, along with the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, has long been lobbying for greater powers to censor the Internet. One of its gripes has been the “TV-like” loophole which Pandora Blake and others have successfully used. The government’s consultation on “protecting children”, issued earlier this year, made clear that government plans to remove this restriction, extending Ofcom’s jurisdiction from video-on-demand services to all forms of adult content, even including still imagery.

Ofcom’s loathing of pornography is well known, and it hasn’t suddenly seen the light. To refuse Blake’s appeal would have opened up the regulator to challenge and scrutiny: its existing powers have dubious legal status. Far better to wait a few months until the new Digital Economy Bill is passed into law; at that stage, it can happily pull the plug on all the adult sites it chooses, without the risk of legal challenge.

So while this is a wonderful personal triumph for Pandora Blake, nobody should believe this represents a movement by the authorities, who now have victory within their sights. Ofcom and DCMS have quietly put the pieces into place for Internet censorship, and will hardly get distracted now by a couple of small fetish websites that have – for the moment – evaded their net. Nothing of significance will happen until Ofcom’s new powers are set in stone by the Digital Economy Bill – and then Blake’s site, along with many other porn, webcam and erotica sites will become illegal, and begin to vanish from the web.

Adam Smith Institute Questions “Extreme Porn” Law

This blog recently published a paper by Nick Cowen on the UK’s extreme porn law. This paper now forms the basis of a briefing from the Adam Smith Institute (ASI), which is available here.

As someone who, until recently, considered myself left-wing, I am ever bewildered and anguished by the fact that the defence of individual liberty, once a cornerstone of the left, is now the preserve of the free-market right: the Adam Smith Institute being a good example. Meanwhile, the left has become increasingly intolerant to free expression in many forms, of which porn is merely the most obvious: I document this strange reversal in political polarities in my book Porn Panic.

The word “extreme” in “extreme porn law” refers to the porn, though may be better used to describe the law. The law is odd for at least two reasons: first that it outlaws the depiction of acts that are popular between consenting couples; second that it targets the consumer rather than the producer.

The first aspect is strange: numerous acts such as whipping and fisting are perfectly legal to do in the privacy of one’s own bedroom. Yet the moment they are recorded, the video becomes illegal to possess.

The second aspect is dangerous: millions of people (including, probably, you) have broken the law and risk being imprisoned and listed as sex offenders. If you have looked at porn without using your browser’s incognito mode, your browser cache will be full of images from the pages you looked at. To merely have an “extreme” image on one’s phone or PC, or stored somewhere in a cloud email or storage account that you own, makes you a possessor of extreme porn. And who knows what constitutes extreme? Nick Cowen does, I do, and possibly a couple of thousand other people in the UK. To create a law that most people will never understand, yet carries heavy penalties, is draconian.

The law originated with a moral panic following the killing of a teacher, Jane Longhurst, by a man who had an interest in BDSM pornography. Clearly, nobody had explained to the government that correlation does not equate to causation: that the fact that a violent person might watch violent porn doesn’t mean that porn causes violence.

The Home Secretary who signed the law into force was Jacqui Smith; yet when I interviewed her, she was unaware of the law’s detail, or of its consequences (over a thousand people a year are now arrested for possessing extreme porn). To find that such a dangerous and unnecessary law could come into being without any serious political opposition or thought was a depressing realisation as to the nature of politics.

Nick’s ASI paper is worth reading; for those short on time, here is its executive summary:

  • The ban on possession of ‘extreme pornography’ was introduced in 2009 and extended in 2015. The law, as drafted, bans depictions of some sex acts that can be conducted safely and consensually between adults, with a specific risk of prosecution posed to LGBT minorities.
  • The Crown Prosecution Service reports more than a thousand offences prosecuted each year, implying significant enforcement costs that could be deployed effectively elsewhere.
  • A significant minority of the British population enjoy sexually aggressive fantasy scenarios but do not pose a specific risk of committing violent or sexual offences.
  • Access to pornography has increased dramatically in recent years, yet social harms imputed to pornography (especially violence against women) have reduced moderately but significantly.
  • While some survey evidence claims a correlation between individual use of pornography and sexual aggression, econometric evidence suggests this is not a causal relationship and that, if anything, increased access to pornography can reduce measurable social harms.
  • The ban itself represents a potential risk to political integrity. Like the ban on homosexuality in much of the 20th century, prohibitions on private sexual conduct can be used to silence, blackmail and corrupt individuals in positions of authority and responsibility.
  • There are better policies for reducing violence against women in the dimensions of criminal justice, education and economic reform.
  • The prevailing free speech doctrine in the United States shows that it is realistically possible to simultaneously tackle damaging forms of expression and maintain strong protections for innocuous forms

Response to the Government’s Anti-Porn Consultation

Response to government consultation: “Child Safety Online: Age Verification for Pornography”

This is a response to the consultation titled “Child Safety Online: Age Verification for Pornography” dated February 2016. I am the founder of the Sex & Censorship campaign, and author of the book Porn Panic! (to be published on 26th August) which explores how recent moral panics over sex have become excuses for censorship.

Summary of Issues

There are numerous problems with the consultation document, which can be grouped into six areas:

  1. The chosen definition of “children” includes sexually-active young adults under 18.
  2. The document skilfully hides the fact that no other EU country is following the UK’s “lead” into censorship.
  3. The solution proposed would have no significant effect on the availability of sexual imagery.
  4. The evidence of harm presented is weak, cherry-picked, and ignores the strongest research, including the British government’s own research.
  5. Adequate tools for protecting small children already exist.
  6. The proposed solution would unnecessarily increase Ofcom’s censorship controls over the Internet. This is not how democratic governments are supposed to behave – especially those that lecture other nations on free expression.

Detailed Response

1 Definition of “Children”

It is customary to refer to those in the 13-17 year age group as young adults, not children. However, the government, and government regulators such as Ofcom, insist on referring to this age group as children. So the document, for example, provides the almost meaningless statement that “13% of children aged 6-14 visited an adult site in May 2015”. To talk about the behaviours of 6 year olds along with those of 14 year olds is deeply misleading: we suspect deliberately so.

We suggest that data combining small children with young adults is unsuitable for making important policy decisions and should be rejected.

2 The UK is Alone

This is far from the first UK government exercise in “protecting children from online adult content”. The UK has introduced a series of measures over more than a decade, including mobile content filters and home broadband filters. The age verification measures mentioned in this document have actually been part of UK regulation since ATVOD was established in 2010. Although we have often been told that other European countries are set to follow us, this has never happened. These measures have not been replicated anywhere else in the world. In other words, no other country sees fit to “protect its children” by introducing multiple layers of censorship.

The consultation document masks this fact, stating “It is clearly important that other nations have also been considering their own approaches to how best to protect children from potentially harmful content on the internet. However, we want to continue to lead the way.”

This statement is inaccurate. We cannot lead when no other nation is following. Going it alone is not leading. This misleading narrative hides the simple fact that no other democratic nation sees the necessity to implement expensive and draconian controls on adult content: indeed, many of the measures introduced in the UK would be unconstitutional in the United States under the first amendment, which protects free speech.

3 The Proposed Solution Would Have Little Effect

While it may succeed in changing the policies of some large, commercial content providers, the solution proposed will clearly have little to no impact on the availability of sexual material to UK consumers. As the consultation document itself points out, there are around five million adult sites in the world. Ofcom would need a huge and very expensive army of enforcers to make any dent on the availability of this material. Is this how the government intends to re-employ the estimated 40,000 people to made redundant by the collapse of the steel industry?

Alternatively, and more likely, Ofcom will come back to government in a year to point out that millions of sites are still ignoring UK law, and request further powers to block transgressors. This slippery slope of censorship is well known. Perhaps it would be better to abandon this exercise now, save time and money, and perhaps instead invest the savings in improved sex education.

4 The Evidence Offered is Weak and Cherry-Picked

The consultation document appears designed to mislead by presenting pornography as potentially harmful. In fact, not only does the growing body of research not back these claims of harm, but it in fact suggests that porn availability plays a role in reducing sexual violence. This applies especially in the case of teenagers: the very group to which the consultation aims to restrict access to sexual imagery.

The document instead cherry-picks and misrepresents the research available. Perhaps the strangest example is the following:

“There is also a question about the effect of pornography on ‘unwanted sex’ – for instance more young people are engaging in anal intercourse than ever before despite research which suggests that it is often not seen as a pleasurable activity for young women”

This is curious at several levels. The fact that some people report having anal sex, and other people report not enjoying anal sex is not evidence that anyone is being forced into anal sex as a result of pornography. Does the government really consider it its role to stop young people having anal sex? We would point out that anti-sodomy laws were removed from the British statute half a century ago and seem unlikely to return.

Most surprisingly, the document ignores the research into pornography carried out by Ofcom on behalf of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. To remedy this omission, here are key phrases from the government’s own research.

  • “There seems to be no relationship between the availability of pornography and an increase in sex crimes in other countries; in comparison there is more evidence for the opposite effect.”
  • “Research with adults indicates no relationship between the commission of sex crimes and use of pornography at an early age. Again in comparison there is evidence for the opposite effect.”

To put this simply: the government’s own research suggests that restricting sexual imagery to teenagers may result in a rise in sexual violence among that age group. We call on the government to abandon these plans until strong evidence can be presented that they will not increase harm.

5 Adequate Tools for Protecting Children Already Exist

Parental controls for child access to the Internet have existed for over two decades. They are mature and effective: so much so that tablets are safely marketed for children by family brands such as Tesco. Regulators have repeatedly ignored this fact when lobbying for more Internet censorship controls.

But specialists believe that the most effective child protection tool of all is comprehensive sex education for all age groups. We therefore call on the government to broaden sex education, rather than attempt to keep teenagers ignorant of sexual matters until they are 18.

6 Take a Stand Against Censorship

The British government takes a strong stance against censorship in states like Iran and China. We agree with this position, and believe that free expression should be defended without compromise by the British government, in the absence of clear evidence of harm. It is unsurprising that Ofcom seeks to extend its already significant censorship powers; we expect our elected representatives to stand against a power grab by unelected regulators, and in favour of a free and open Internet for British citizens. We cannot lecture other countries on free expression while allowing ours to be continually eroded under the pretext of protecting children.

Jerry Barnett
Sex & Censorship

jerry@sexandcensorship.org

TV-Like Content: Closing the Loophole

The government plans to close the “TV-Like” loophole which a handful of porn services have used to stay in business.

For years, the British censorship state has become infuriated with the way digital communications have entirely sidelined their tight controls over film, TV and video content. The TV regulator Ofcom and the BBFC, which censors DVD, had no control over content on the Internet, whether or not it was published in the UK.

In order to regain some control, the regulators seized on the Audiovisual Media Services Directive, a framework from the EU designed to extend broadcast TV regulation to online streaming services. The directive was written to apply only to “TV-Like On Demand Programme Services”, and was expected to apply to the BBC’s iPlayer and similar services.

However, the British censors saw their opportunity, and set up ATVOD in 2010 in order to implement the directive. While most EU countries followed the spirit of the directive, and set up minimal regulatory regimes, ATVOD instead drafted its own onerous rules and demanded large annual payments (£2,900 in the first year) from services (mainstream and adult) it considered to be “TV-like”.

Since ATVOD’s first goal was to raise funds, it cast its net wide, and declared a wide range of online newspaper and magazine services to be TV-like. The Sun newspaper swiftly appealed, and Ofcom (ATVOD’s effective parent) found in its favour. As a result, ATVOD dropped attempts to bring the Sun, as well as The Sunday Times Video Library, Telegraph TV, The Independent Video, FT Video, Guardian Video, Guardian YouTube, News of the World TV and Elle TV, under its control.

Subsequently, ATVOD tried to declare that some BBC YouTube channels – Top Gear and BBC Food – were TV-like services, and again lost on appeal.

Later, adult services also used the same appeal, sometimes successfully. The first successful appeal was by Mistress Tytania (who I interviewed for a podcast). She therefore found herself in the peculiar position of running the only hardcore adult service legally allowed to trade in the UK while ignoring ATVOD’s rules.

In our interview, Mistress Tytania said “I think ATVOD are now trying to correct all the holes in their argument. I’m free for now, but I don’t know for how long.” Well, now we know how long. Tucked away in the recently issued consultation on new porn laws, was an important line:

“… our proposals would also apply to pornography that the BBFC would rate as category 18 sex works and would apply to all online content, not just VOD services.”

At a stroke, this closes the only possible route of appeal for adult services that wish to remain in the UK. It also extends the age verification requirement to still images as well as video, and to soft imagery as well as sexually explicit. It will probably also extend to cartoons, drawings and other artwork, and maybe even to text.

It will cover Twitter and Google, and many other non-porn services, as these feature nude imagery. In other words – as I have often pointed out – this is a blueprint for censoring the Internet as a whole, not (as billed) protecting children from seeing porn.

Liberalism and Extreme Pornography

Nick Cowen is a PhD student, who has recently published an academic paper on Millian Liberalism and Extreme s200_nick.cowenPornography. In this, he argues that apparently ‘liberal’ justifications for banning ‘extreme porn’ in the UK are misguided. The Sex & Censorship campaign agrees: trying to justify censorship from a liberal perspective is a contradiction in terms. Below, Nick explains his argument in brief. His full paper can be downloaded here.

In August 2012, Simon Walsh, a prominent lawyer and former aide to London mayor Boris Johnson, was prosecuted for possession of ‘extreme pornography’. The alleged crime was possessing digital photographs depicting ‘fisting’ and ‘urethral sounding’ taken at a private all-male sex party where Walsh was a participant.

The prosecution claimed that the acts depicted were extreme because they could cause serious harm. The jury heard expert evidence from a surgeon that the acts, which are relatively commonly practiced within the LGBT community, could be conducted safely. It took the jury just a few minutes of deliberation to reject all charges.

Despite the ‘not guilty’ verdict, the trial came at personal cost to Walsh. Intimate details of his sex life were exposed in a public forum. Moreover, the Crown Prosecution Service continues to argue that the grounds for prosecution were sound and that the images were ‘extreme’, leaving open the possibility of continued prosecutions. This suggests a particular legal vulnerability for gay men and other sexual minorities. This is a perverse result for a law that was originally intended to address violence against women.

The British government banned extreme pornography in 2008. There are now more than 1000 prosecutions a year in the United Kingdom. We know comparatively little about the circumstances of most cases, possibly because, unlike Walsh, most defendants accept a sanction to avoid public attention and the greater risk of a prison sentence.

Prosecution statistics indicate that many cases involve depictions of bestiality. While bestiality raises real concerns with animal cruelty, many images may amount to harmless (if poor taste) jokes. For example, one failed prosecution in Wales involved possession of an image of a man having sex with a woman while wearing a tiger costume.

I argue that this approach to regulating pornography is disproportionate to any notional public benefit, and cannot plausibly protect women’s interests or improve their social status.   My article highlights some illiberal aspects of the ban. First, ‘extreme’ is defined in terms of what the image appears to depict, rather than any actual harm done in creating the image. This means that records of acts safely performed by consenting adults can nevertheless be criminalised. Second, the law bans possession, not publication. This means that the law respects no boundary between private and public, and does not consider the context in which an image is found or displayed.

These features would have a strong chance of rendering such a ban unconstitutional on first amendment grounds if the law were passed in the United States. It is somewhat less clear whether it infringes European human rights law. Regardless of where positive law stands, I argue that liberal defences of privacy and free expression extend to extreme pornography.

I argue instead that images used to expose or harass individuals (or ‘revenge porn’) are legitimately prohibited.  On my account, consent to view or be depicted should be the key test of legality, a test that the current definition of ‘extreme pornography’ sadly ignores.

Nick Cowen is a PhD student in political economy at King’s College London and a volunteer policy researcher for Backlash

Breaking: Dominatrix Challenges Anti-Porn ATVOD Law

Readers of this blog will remember the December law (aka AVMS 2014) which outlaws content on UK adult websites stronger than the BBFC’s R18 certificate. This is the law that prompted the facesitting protest outside Parliament – how could you forget?

The regulator appointed by the government responsible for checking whether someone has sat on someone’s face a bit too long, or spanked someone a bit too hard (yes, it really exists) is known as ATVOD. ATVOD has now taken its first actions under the new law, serving notice on two dominatrices that their sites contain illegal content. One of the dommes closed her site after being approached by ATVOD, but the other is challenging the validity of AVMS 2014.

The ATVOD ruling makes clear the state’s squeamish and censorious approach to fetish pornography, stating:

Banned pornographic material made available on the UK based services included videos of heavy whipping likely to cause lasting physical harm, the infliction of pain on a person who appears unable to withdraw consent, and repeated strong kicks to the genitals which appear to draw blood. Such material has been prohibited on UK based VOD services since 1 December 2014 under new statutory regulations designed to bring online rules into line with those that operate offline. Other videos featuring explicit images of real sex and BDSM material could also be accessed by children on the internet services, in breach of further statutory requirements.

For a regulator whose remit is supposed to cover all forms of video entertainment, ATVOD’s CEO Pete Johnson appears to spend a high proportion of his time chasing down dommes. Approached for comment, Obscenity law specialist Myles Jackman pondered:

“The appropriately named Mr Johnson appears to have a particular fixation for slapping Female Dominatrixes’ websites with adverse determinations. Only he can answer if he enjoys singling out female-owned cottage-industry producers over global industry players.”

Shockingly, the new law was pushed through without a parliamentary vote, using a parliamentary procedure designed for rubber-stamping EU legislation into UK law. But the ban on fetish porn does not appear to be justified by EU legislation, and currently the UK is the only EU country to take such an action. Campaigners believe that the new law should have been subject to a full debate and vote by MPs.

Mistress R’eal has appealed against ATVOD’s ruling that her site is in breach of regulations on the basis that the December law is not valid. We wish her luck in defending her right to free expression. Her full appeal is as follows:

“I submit that the Audiovisual Media Services Regulations 2014, which introduced sections 368E(2) and (3) into the Communications Act 2003, were made ultra vires the Secretary of State’s power to pass secondary legislation under section 2(2) of the European Communities Act 1972. Section 2(2) gives the Secretary of State the power to pass secondary legislation for the purpose of implementing any EU obligation or for the purpose of dealing with matters arising out of or related to EU obligations. I note that the Audiovisual Media Services Directive (2010/13/EU) imposes an obligation on Member States to prohibit hate speech on ODPS (Art. 6); by contrast, it does not contain any obligation to ban content that may be harmful to minors from ODPS, only an obligation to ensure that access to such content is appropriately restricted (Article 12). In the premises, I fail to see how the 2014 Regulations (and, by extension, section 368E(2) & (3) of the 2003 Act), could be said to implement an obligation in the AVMS Directive or to deal with matters arising out of related to that Directive. The 2014 Regulations plainly go well beyond the scope of the directive – and, in doing so, subvert the appropriate democratic process for dealing with an important human rights (free speech) issue. In light of the foregoing, I submit that the 2014 Regulations and sections 368E(2)-(3), CA2003 are void – as so, by extension, is ATVOD’s Rule 14, which is based solely on the aforementioned sections of the Communications Act 2003.”

A Beginner’s Guide to the Block Bot

[Editor’s note: it was with incredulity that I first heard about The Block Bot, a piece of software that automatically blocks Twitter users chosen by the Block Bot team, which has made itself judge, jury and executioner in deciding whose tweets should not be seen. The author of this piece is a law student who has decided to take legal action against the Bot team: read on for details… I encourage readers to support his action – see Go Fund Me link at the bottom.]

The internet is a dynamic place. As a new and increasingly important part of our lives the datasphere has really only existed for a few decades. I remember getting my first ‘proper’ internet email account at University in the late 1990s. It is natural therefore that society is still trying to find the right balance between freedom and regulation.

Society does need to draw lines. I personally draw the line at children, animals, dead people and ‘real’ violence. On the other hand, to invert something a senior Labour Party official once said to me, “There is censorship, and then there is taking the f***ing piss”. The Block Bot falls hard into the latter category.

The Block Bot, for those of you who are unfamiliar with it, is a subscription service to ‘protect’ users of Twitter from ‘harassment’. The Bot project maintains a database of ‘bad’ users of Twitter. When you sign up to the Block Bot it blocks them for you, 24 / 7. Silently and automatically, people are removed from your timeline.

The problems with the Block Bot are twofold –

The first major problem is that whilst it bills itself as protecting people from ‘harassers’ it in fact blocks many people who are merely political opponents of the Block Bot. The small print of the Block Bot project shows it has three levels of iniquity and, whilst the definitions have regularly changed, the current definition for Level 3 is, “This may include, but is not limited to, accounts that appear to frequently engage in microagressions, parrot tired talking points, show a sense of entitlement to have a conversation, exhibit a lack respect for the lived experience of others, etc.”https://archive.is/fVeaM

The Block Bot list contains Professor Richard Dawkins, Beatrix Campbell OBE and at one stage it it even included Barack Obama, although he was eventually removed. Users of the Block Bot are told who is blocked on the sign up page, although as there are around 10,000 usernames to read in tiny print it is infeasible for most people to read it. There are no further mechanisms to notify subscribers of blocks afterwards, although the Block Bot account tweets out the occasional unblock. Individuals have been explicitly added for no better reason than being humanists.

The second major problem is that the Block Bot maintains a database of the alleged ‘offences’ committed by people on the list. Professor Richard Dawkins is listed for (amongst other things) ‘#racist’, ‘#childabuseapologism’. Whilst Dawkins is many things he is neither racist nor a child abuse apologist. Beatrix Campbell OBE is listed on the bot for ‘freazepeach’ (supporting free speech is an offence … to the Block Bot team).

The database has usually been publicly searchable although it has been up and down recently following threats of legal action and its use as a back-end to search software written by opponents.

Silently, political views are removed from the world view of those who use the bot, enclosing them in an echo chamber bubble. At the same time, they will be interacting with the Block Bot team. Its administrators are best described as members of the extreme left – a noxious variation of the Tumblr tendency based around a hard left forum called, ‘Atheism Plus’ who take offence … easily. Members of the community are occasionally made an example of for deviating from the approved line.

It is like joining a kind of ‘stealth’ virtual cult, which rather than physically intern its subscribers in a compound somewhere, mentally interns them in a so-called ‘safe space’ in which dissenting views are excluded and the occasional initiate is dragged screaming from the ‘room’ as a warning to others – deterring anyone from following suit.

The Block Bot is subject to significant rate restrictions. For a new sign up it can only block 1 person per minute. That means that running 24 / 7 it will take a week to complete the initial block list. Existing users are subject to similar restrictions.

The end result is rather unhealthy. An automated online tool, the Block Bot does not rapidly block offenders but instead locks them in a sealed room with its administrators. The echo chamber does not brook dissent and of course the Block Bot team deliberately insulate themselves from complaints, which they regard as ‘harassment’.

All that changed earlier this year. After making a video critical of the Block Bot I was added to the list as a ‘Level 1’, ‘Troll’ and when I served two block bot administrators with letters before action all hell broke loose. Unable to comprehend that there might be other points of view they reported me to the police. The police are under a statutory duty to investigate and initially they did. One police force even served me with a ‘notice of harassment’ allegation. After an investigation that has now been rescinded. The police concluded that my actions were not harassment.

Now the boot is on the other foot. I have started County Court proceedings against Block Bot creator James Billingham, who lives in the UK. Readers will judge for themselves whether it is legal to –

  • Maintain an ‘offenders’ database and add people for sexual allegations without telling them
  • Not register the database with the ICO
  • Make the database searchable online
  • Write a ‘John Scalzi’ quotes bot to tweet snide remarks at aggrieved persons who contact you instead of having a clearly defined appeals procedure

Answers on a postcard. I am bringing a small claim for £1,000 under the recent ruling versus Google that persons whose data protection rights are breached are entitled to moral damages. In itself that is not enough to bankrupt Billingham or end the Block Bot. However, there are over ten thousand people on the bot. If I win Billingham could be looking at a seven-figure bill. Q – if a tenth of the list, (say 1,000 people) sue for £1,000 damages each, what is the bill if they win?

Litigation is always risky, although I have had three positive second opinions. I am running a Go Fund Me as a way to minimise risks. If you want a laugh, chuck in a £20, would you? If there is any money left at the end it will be spent on a London meet up for members of an anti-censorship, pro-consumer, pro-ethics group called KotakuInAction (free to join).

Sam Smith is an LPC Law Student who writes Matthew Hopkins News under the pseudonym Matthew Hopkins. Smith has been praised in Parliament for his pro-bono work as a McKenzie Friend. A former Labour Councillor, Sam Smith is now a member of the Conservative Party. Please back his Go Fund Me here. He can be followed on Twitter as @MHWitchfinder.