Category Archives: Politics

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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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?

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!

#CensoredUK – Day of Action – Thursday 12 December 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ALERT: Parliament Considers UK Internet Block-List

David Cameron’s announcement of an Internet filter to “protect children” has raised great concern this year; and yet, as I wrote following the announcement, the filter is merely a first step towards Internet censorship: I referred to it as “Internet Censorship 1.0”. The filter is not a legal requirement, but a voluntary agreement between the government and ISPs; but it was inevitable that legislation would follow. And indeed it has: the Online Safety Bill is a private member’s bill which is about to have its second reading in the House of Lords.

A casual reader might assume it simply refers to the filtering system already discussed, but in fact it contains something far more serious: an attempt to introduce a mandatory UK Internet block-list. This historic move would truly put the UK in the same camp as China and Iran: the government, or more likely, unelected regulators, would deem a site to be inappropriate for viewing by the British public, and it would vanish from our view of the Internet. Below is the key text from the bill, with my comments in bold.

(1) Internet service providers must provide to subscribers an internet access service which excludes adult content unless all the conditions of subsection (3) have been fulfilled. Note that “adult content” is a very broad term. This blog is already considered “adult content” by some UK mobile networks.

(2) Where mobile telephone network operators provide a telephone service to subscribers, which includes an internet access service, they must ensure this service excludes adult content unless all the conditions of subsection (3) have been fulfilled.

(3) The conditions are— Now watch carefully…

(a) the subscriber “opts-in” to subscribe to a service that includes adult content; This simply puts the existing filter plans into law.

(b) the subscriber is aged 18 or over; and The ISP must age-check the subscriber before allowing them to opt in – this already happens on mobile networks. The juicy bit is next:

(c) the provider of the service has an age verification policy which meets the standards set out by OFCOM and which has been used to confirm that the subscriber is aged 18 or over What does this mean? Let’s break it down:

Clause 3(c) means that even if the user has proved their age and opted in to see “adult content”, the ISP must only allow them to do so if the service meets content standards as set by the media regulator Ofcom. Each ISP can’t, of course, check every site on the Internet. Instead, the only technical solution is to block any service that appears to provide adult material, unless it is on an Ofcom-approved list.

Does such a list exist? Yes: Ofcom has already delegated the power to regulate online video services to a private organisation called ATVOD. ATVOD requires video services to register (and pay), and to comply with a series of UK-specific content guidelines. How many adult services comply to ATVOD? At present, around 20, and most of these are fairly soft, and are mostly linked to existing adult TV channels.

There are millions of porn sites in the world. There are many million more sites that contain sexual imagery, sexual chat, sex education material or other content that might (according to some people) not be suitable for under-18s. Under this bill, ISPs would be breaking the law if they failed to block a site containing “adult content”, and so if a service is in doubt, it will be blocked, to be on the safe side. As noted above, massive over-blocking has already occurred on mobile services.

There is no partial step into Internet censorship; either a block list exists, or it doesn’t. Once created, it can be used for any purpose; David Cameron has already hinted at blocking “extremist” sites. And “extreme”, like “adult content” is wide open for interpretation. Although we generally believe we live in a free country, we have always been a censored one. The Internet blew a hole in the power of the state to decide what can be published and what can be seen. It is no surprise that the state wants to reclaim that power.

Any step to create a UK block list must be opposed by anyone who believes in free expression. We must ask our MPs: why does Britain, almost alone in the democratic world, see the need to implement such a measure? Why are British people more in need of “protection” than Americans or other Europeans? As a private member’s bill, the Online Safety Bill may well fail, but the measures are most likely to reappear in an official government Communications Bill. We have time to protect our Internet freedom, but we don’t have long. What can you do? We will be making an announcement shortly. Please join our mailing list to receive alerts.

Are Sex and Porn Addictive?

We’re pleased to welcome a new blogger. David J. Ley PhD. is an American clinical psychologist who practices in Albuquerque, NM. He is the author of The Myth of Sex Addiction, writes a blog for Psychology Today, and is a frequent speaker on radio and television. His website is: http://Drdavidley.com

David J. Ley PhD
David J. Ley PhD

The cry “save kids from addictive porn” has resounded through Britain of late, part of the argument for restricting pornography access. The idea sounds sensible, at least at first. Like drugs or alcohol, porn (and sex in general) can feel really good. So, it seems to make intuitive sense that sex could be addictive in similar ways. Unfortunately, the idea of sex and porn addiction is merely an expression of human fears of sexuality, and is a concept which reflects the manipulative power of pop psychology and moral panics.

The idea of sex addiction first sprang into the American consciousness in the early 1980’s, when Patrick Carnes, a prison psychologist, first published a book where he related sexual behavior problems to the problems of alcoholics. He advocated for the use of 12-step treatments, like what is used in Alcoholics Anonymous. Carnes’ ideas caught fire and spawned an enormous industry in the United States, tapping into tremendous fears of sexuality, particularly aspects of male sexuality.

The idea of sex addiction took root in fertile soil, which had been fertilized by centuries of fear and sexual suppression. The ideas that masturbation itself could be unhealthy can be traced back centuries to European physicians, who argued that masturbation depleted men of crucial energy. We now understand that many of the problems blamed on masturbation and excessive sexuality, from mental health problems or blindness, were actually the result of untreated sexually transmitted infections such as syphilis or gonorrhea. But, for hundreds of years, physicians advocated against the dangers of too much sex or too much masturbation. Kellog’s cornflakes and Graham crackers were originally invented to be bland foods that wouldn’t “stimulate” physical passions or lead to sexual arousal. Throughout history, societies go through periods of changing attitudes towards sex, from more liberal “free love” attitudes towards conservative times when sexual expression is restricted. Fear-based ideas such as sex addiction or nymphomania arise in times and societies that are attempting to suppress or control sexuality. Sadly, the medical field has often been an instrument of this control.

Historically, women suffered the most from these danger moral medical practices, where women diagnosed as nymphomaniacs were institutionalized, lobotomized, or had their clitorises removed, when doctors determined that these women liked sex too much (as much as men for instance). The diagnosis of nymphomania was finally abandoned and rejected as the medical field acknowledged that these diagnoses were based on culturally-determined gender stereotypes, not on medical or scientific data. Sex researcher Alfred Kinsey said it best, when he quipped that “a nymphomaniac is anyone who has more sex than their therapist.”

But today, it’s men’s turn. According to most studies, alleged sex addicts are overwhelmingly male. Between 85-92% of most “sex addicts” are men. There are two main reasons for this: first, the idea of sex addiction came to the fore at the same time that American media and society made a shift in the way that gender was regarded. For centuries, masculinity was seen as the ideal. Medical textbooks focused on male physiology, and females were ignored. Men were seen as smarter, and more valuable. But, beginning in the 1980’s, masculinity became a figure of ridicule. Men were increasingly portrayed as buffoons, subject to the whims of their penises. Penises themselves are most often portrayed as objects of humor, rather than sexual objects comparable to female genitalia. Men today are seen as less moral than women, and male sexual desires are seen as baser, deficient, and dangerous.

Gender differences in sexual desire, attitudes and values are clear. Men masturbate more than women, use pornography more frequently, are more likely to be interested in fetishistic sexual practices, engage in infidelity more, visit prostitutes more, and are more likely to be interested in casual sex. All of these behaviors have been regarded as symptoms of sexual addiction, when they actually reflect sexual differences between men and women. The field of sex addiction has served to attack (and excuse) male sexuality for the past thirty years. Historically, powerful men throughout history have enjoyed sexual privilege that included a “hall pass” from monogamy. But, as social views of masculinity changed, powerful men caught in infidelity needed something to blame. The idea that sex is addictive and a powerful drug became a convenient scapegoat, which actors, politicians and sports figures used to excuse their misbehaviors.

The second reason why sex addiction is focused on men lies again in the time when sex addiction emerged. The early 1980’s saw the rise of AIDS. With the AIDS crisis, unrestrained male sexuality, and in particular male homosexuality, was seen as not just a moral inconvenience, but a potential life-threatening behavior that endangered men and those around them. Today, studies show that gay and bisexual men are about three times more likely to be labeled as sex addicts, than they are to be diagnosed with mental health or drug and alcohol problems.

But, despite thirty years of public acceptance and media embrace of the idea that sex is addictive, sexual addiction is not a diagnosable illness. Medical and psychiatric industries have consistently rejected this concept, as based on moral and cultural values, with little to no scientific basis. Repeatedly, over the past years, proponents of sex addiction have been chastised for poor science, based on anecdote, rather than defensible empirical scientific research.

And yet, the idea that sex is addictive remains a powerful myth in modern society, because of its usefulness. Media and moral groups use this idea to invoke fear, tapping into normal human sexual anxiety. The idea that porn is addictive was used by religious groups to ban Playboy from the shelves of convenience stores, and is used today to invoke fear that childhood exposure to porn can create uncontrollable and damaging addictions.

Sex and porn, can cause problems in people’s lives, just like any other human behavior or form of entertainment. But, to invoke the idea of “addiction” is unethical, using invalid, scientifically and medically-rejected concepts to invoke fear and feed panic. The history of the idea of sex addiction should be a cautionary tale to modern British society – whenever this ploy is used, its intent is to restrict sexual freedoms, based on conservative social philosophies.

Models & Performers: Lend Your Support!

dont-censor-meThere are many censorship actions taking place in the UK right now. Everything from porn, Page 3 and lads’ mags to strip clubs are in the firing line. Anything sexy is declared sexist! We’re told this is about protecting women. And yet, it is women who are under the greatest attack. Those women who have chosen to undress for a living are told that what they do is wrong. The censorship lobby is picking up steam. Everything from strip clubs to web sites are being forcibly closed down.

If you are a pornstar, model, webcam girl, stripper, fetish performer or otherwise make your living from your body or your sexuality, you are under the threat of being censored!

Please help us fight back by lending your voice to the campaign. Just download and print this sign, snap a photo of yourself with it, and mail it back to us! Your photo will be published in a gallery on this blog.

Photos can be clothed or undressed, with or without your face showing. Please accompany the photo with your name (working name or real name) and a short message to those people who want to suppress your image.

Thanks!