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:

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

Free event-based dating for the UK
Jaunt.Singles

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.

Ready, Normal People?

The legendary Avenue Q song asks all the “normal people” to join in for the final chorus of the hilarious song, The Internet is For Porn, and it’s never disappointed: thousands of audience members have, over the years, rejoiced in singing along about their masturbatory habits, relieved that, at least in some small way, they can publicly acknowledge their consumption of one of the world’s most popular entertainment formats – porn.

Surprise, then, when the music fades and an actual debate about internet censorship and sexuality arises, and the general public suddenly falls silent on this very serious issue. It’s like someone cut the music halfway through, and they’re caught warbling along – embarrassed to be singled out, they suddenly shut up and pretend the issue has nothing to do with them. But if we’re honest, most of us are consumers of pornography – and yeah, ladies, I’m including us too. Because I have a confession to make to the world:

Hello, Internet. My name is Sephy Hallow, and I like porn*.

What’s more: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with admitting it. Whilst on one hand, I’m not going to openly discuss my particular kinks, that doesn’t mean we can’t have an open, honest discussion about pornography consumption, access to explicit materials, and the importance of a free internet. Because if we don’t, our embarrassment about our sexual preferences is going to have real-world consequences on access to information, sexual health advice and much, much more – plenty of which is entirely non-sexual, safe-for-work, important information, which has been blocked in an attempt to sanitize the web – all in the name of saving the children.

Grown Ups: Grow Up

The internet should absolutely be a space where our children can feel safe to access information and connect socially, amongst other things. However, having default blocks is not the way to go.

Here’s why.

Firstly: it’s not really necessary. The internet has come on a long way since the 90s. If you’re still getting pop-ups advertising horny Russian teens or online Viagra, you need an ad block, not a filter from your ISP. Porn isn’t something you can just innocently stumble onto these days (unless you count Miley Cyrus videos), and it’s even harder to make a fatal Google error with a little parental guidance. Internet filtering is designed to protect children from unwanted exposure to explicit content, and of course we should protect that right – I’m just saying we don’t need to block access to do so.

The internet is a new facet to our sexuality, so it’s up to us as grown ups to provide information, guidance and advice to children and young people about what they can expect to find online. The best way to prevent exposure is to educate your children, so they can avoid such material themselves.

Secondly, we need to open up the debate, and be honest with ourselves. When I say it’s up to the grown ups to offer guidance to young people about sex and the web, I don’t just mean parents and teachers: I mean it’s up to all of us to shape the debate, decide how best we can balance the need to protect children and deny censorship, and provide that safe platform for children without limiting regular access to content for adult consumers. After all, if we can’t talk to other adults in an honest manner about our sexuality and its online expression, what chance have we got in educating young people about sex and the internet?

Allowing widespread internet filtering might seem like the easy option, but if it comes with a caveat of sacrificing our freedom to information – an important civil liberty – how are we making the world better for these children?

Finally, and maybe most importantly, since it encompasses people on all sides of the debate: it simply doesn’t work. Not only does it not work, but it actually fails in two ways: one, that filtering can easily be circumvented; and two, that it blocks other content, much of which is not sexually explicit, and some of which is even political in nature, adding a much more serious problem of censorship to the issue.

Case in point: The Court of The Hague just announced that Dutch ISPs will no longer be mandated to block access to torrent website The Pirate Bay, because the blocks are “disproportionate and ineffective.” If blocks don’t work to curb illegal behaviour, you can bet it won’t stop people accessing something as legal and popular as porn.

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Ready normal people? Sing it with me:

The internet is for porn … the internet is for porn …

*Please, please don’t send me dick pics. Much though I love a nice bit of wang – or pussy, for that matter, as an openly bisexual woman – I’m quite happy to source my pleasure media in my own time, thanks.

 

A Stripper Writes to Object

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Signed: An angry stripper and…

Beyoncé’s Bum and the World’s Lamest Outrage

Is there really a mass outcry across Britain about Beyoncé’s divine and gyrating bum at this week’s Grammy Awards? As far as I can tell, it is, once again, an attempt to manufacture an outcry by a couple of media outlets and busybodies.

Predictably, the Daily Mail led the charge with some pearl-clutching editorialising  in the headline: “Is this really what little girls should aspire to, Beyoncé? Parents attack ‘vile’ display at Grammys“.  By outraged “parents”, the Mail means one quote attributed to an unnamed parent who finds it “sad when our children can’t even watch the Grammys.” And “hundreds of others who took to the internet to express their disgust.” Hundreds. Out of how many viewers?

Latter-day Mary Whitehouses, Pippa Smith of SaferMedia, and Vivienne Pattison of Mediawatch-UK, were also quoted with tedious “won’t someone think of the children” moans.

Beyoncé dancing with her husband in a “really skimpy outfit” means boys could have trouble relating to women as anything other than sexual beings, according to Pattison. And, weirdly, Smith is complaining about “a husband and wife … behav[ing] in such an obscenely sexual manner.” Imagine that, boys and girls. A couple who have conceived a child together are sexual beings. Well, I never…

Metro, meanwhile, shared a few snippets of social media reaction and didn’t bother to run the story on their clickbait Facebook page, and the Guardian (despite leading the charge on assorted Lose the Lads’ Mags and No More Page 3 campaigns) and the Telegraph both seem to be refreshingly nonplussed about it all. The Daily Mail article only attracted 172 comments. By Daily Mail standards, that is a mere drop in the ocean of bile, a disappointing response to something which fits their confused agenda of creating outrage while still running plenty of sexy pictures just so you know exactly what you’re meant to be outraged about.

I don’t buy that there is an outrage in Britain about Beyoncé’s bum. Hell, there isn’t even a storm on Mumsnet. People may be raging about Beyoncé in the US but it’s just not happening here.  This is a good thing. This gives me some hope that we’re not descending into a nation of sex-scared prudes who seek to hide all flesh from public view for the good of the children.

It’s great we’re being so chilled out about Beyoncé’s bum – but it means we are sleepwalking through the government’s plans to censor the internet, with very few voices in Parliament speaking out about the absurdity of this. We are also sleepwalking through telecommunications companies already doing the censorship for the government. Companies such as O2 are blocking websites – including my blog – and then making adult consumers jump through stupid hoops to access perfectly legal content. This is despite O2 offering parental control filters so kids can’t access adult content.

I’ve lived in a country with absurdly filtered internet. It doesn’t just mean that adult websites are banned. It means that websites which might cause political dissent are banned too. As long as we merrily let any government do the same thing in Britain, we will be faced with a situation far more damaging than Beyoncé twerking for her own husband.

Filtering: Definition of Irony?

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

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

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

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

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

Who Will Defend Hate Speech?

Bang On Target
Bang On Target

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are the British Doomed to be Lonely?

David J. Ley PhD
David J. Ley PhD

Guest blogger David J Ley, a Psychologist based in New Mexico, muses about the possible social effects of the new UK Internet filters.He is the author of The Myth of Sex Addiction and writes a blog for Psychology Today. His website is: http://Drdavidley.com

Based upon the opt-in, opt-out filtering of Internet sites, it appears that the government and Internet Service Providers have a certain image in mind, when it comes to the kind of person they want you to be. Freedom of information allows us to develop in our own, self-selected ways. So, when that information is restricted, one must assume that there is a desire to prevent you from developing in those directions. So, let’s look at some of the blocked categories in the Internet filtering in Britain, and see what kind of people we shouldn’t be.

At the baseline filtering level, of course, all pornography is going to be filtered. Because, this is about sex, right? So, of course they want to limit access to sexual material. They have to, it’s the foundation of this whole panic. There are interesting antiquated ideas built in here though, that you can’t be trusted to choose your own sexual stimulation privately, and out of society’s watchful monitoring. Perhaps they think that too much masturbation is bad for you. Wears you down, reduces your productivity, and makes you weaker on the football field, or at the business table. Should be an interesting experiment, at a large scale. Does interfering with masturbation and private sexual stimulation have larger social effects? Apparently, we shall now see. (Though, the research has been done already – greater porn access decreases sexual crimes like rape and sexual abuse. Increased controls on accessing porn correlates with increases in the rates of sexual crime.) I’m sad to say that the people of the United Kingdom may need to get out your rape whistles, and attend personal defense classes.

At a more interesting level to me, is the material that is not sexual in nature, which is automatically blocked at all levels of filtering. It reads like a Rorschach test of the British government’s anxieties about its people. We can interpret these elements, as projecting what kind of people you are supposed to be, according to your government, and the results frankly, are a bit disturbing.

Dating sites are automatically blocked at even the lowest levels of filtering. So, Match.com, Okcupid, etc., are all now off-limits. Why is this? Dating sites reflect a modern way to meet people, to find people who share your own values and interests, and to overcome the physical divides built into a world with billions of people. In historical times, we knew perhaps 500 people, our local village. And, for intimate partners, we chose from that small group, limited to what was available, and not based upon many of our personal desires or needs – you married somebody who was available, you learned to simply accept what you could have, and give up on what you might want. Dating sites are one way in which technology has allowed us to overcome those natural barriers, and to find people who share our interests and desires, even the most private ones we wouldn’t necessarily be willing to voice in person in our small village. Conservative voices and technophobes often argue against dating sites. According to these arguments, Internet dating is unhealthy in some way, encouraging hookups and casual sex; it is somehow “less,” because it is modern and not restricted to the old ways of doing things. But, one in three marriages starts these days, through dating sites. And one in ten people are using dating sites on a regular basis. Young people, those who aren’t heterosexual, and the technically proficient (read, people who use computers all day) all use dating sites more than other populations. With limited access to dating sites, it appears that more Brits will have to either accept loneliness, or return to the days of dating only those who are immediately available. Put on the shelf those personal desires for finding someone who shares your interests, and take what you can get, seems to be the message.

The other automatically blocked category of sites that is strangely revealing of the State’s anxiety and desires, is the filtering of information related to suicide and self-harm. Of course, many sites intended to educate and prevent suicide will likely be automatically overblocked. But, at a deeper level, the British state is saying something here – thinking about suicide or self-harm is unhealthy, sick, and disturbed. They appear to be working under the premise that if they can restrict your access to information about suicide or self-harm, they can reduce the chances that you’ll do it or even think about it. But, suicide and thoughts of self-destruction existed long, long before the Internet. Loneliness and social isolation are some of the main predictors of suicidal thoughts, and exposing people to information about suicide actually decreases their chances of doing it. One of the most effective interventions for suicide is to help people understand that they are not alone in those thoughts, and that many people, millions each year, also struggle with thoughts of ending it all. Thinking of suicide is normal, when people feel cut off and alone, sad, and hopeless. But now, with such information blocked automatically, it appears that many people in the UK, who struggle with such thoughts, may have to struggle alone. To paraphrase the old prison warden in Cool Hand Luke, “that is the way they want it.”

The British government seems to want you to struggle alone. Is this a reflection of the old ways of doing things? Suffer in silence, with a stiff upper lip? From the outside looking in, I will make a humble observation: I believe that the British state wants its citizens to live the way they did, before the Internet. The current restrictions suggest that they believe that such ways of life were better, more ethical and safer than modern ways.

By blocking access to sex, dating, and information about suicide, the British people are doomed to greater loneliness. The great change that the Internet has wrought is that it allows people to connect in new ways, from around the world, crossing barriers. The disabled, the far from home, the chronically busy, the shy and those who fear that their desires are unique and shameful, are just some of the people who use the Internet to feel connected with others. Before the Internet was widely accessible, these people struggled through life, alone, isolated and hopeless. The Internet gave many of us hope, and let us feel that we were not alone. Apparently, that’s a dangerous thing, according to the modern British state.

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!

Defending Liberal Values in Authoritarian Times

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