Tag Archives: bbfc

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Podcast 14: Jerry at BBFC HQ

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

In The Press

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

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

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Britain’s First Official Internet Censor Is… The BBFC

Today’s news, that the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) will become an official Internet censor, is not so surprising, if you’ve followed the long saga of British state attempts to censor the mass media. The story is long and convoluted, begins in the 1970s, and is summarised in part in my book Porn Panic!

The creation of the new censorship function is part of the “anti-porn” measures in the Digital Economy Bill, which is currently in Parliament. So here’s the first weird thing – the action of appointing the BBFC has taken place before the law is passed. Cart-before-horse, much? But this abuse of process is minor, compared to what has come before. The bill will, no doubt, be passed with little scrutiny, because the UK’s first great step into Internet censorship has been sold under the banner (as I’ve long predicted) of “protecting children from pornography”.

Let’s remind ourselves that, in regulator-speak, “pornography” means “anything we want to censor”. Remember David Cameron’s optional “porn filters” which block 19% of the Internet, for example? In the current draft of the Bill, the definition of porn has been hugely extended from hardcore material to any sexual/nude/erotic material. The old regulations have been extended from covering just video to including still imagery and even audio. Audio porn? you ask… what’s that? Well, exactly. This bill will begin broad and get broader.

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As I’ve repeatedly pointed out in the three years since I started this blog and campaign, this isn’t about BDSM, or kink, or porn, or even sex. It’s about everything.

The BBFC was an film industry body until (suitably) 1984, when it was given government-approved powers to censor (as well as classify) video. Ironically, just as it was given this draconian censorship power, it changed the C in its name from Censorship to Classification. George Orwell would be proud. One of the results of the 1984 change in law was an immediate ban by the BBFC (a private organisation) on hardcore pornography, without a debate or discussion in Parliament. Our censorship laws are written by unelected officials with minimal accountability to our elected government. This should deeply worry anybody who cares about democracy.

In 2007, I went to meet a certain Pete Johnson, the BBFC’s Head of Online, who was attempting to set up a programme for regulating online video. Johnson’s scheme failed to get approval, but he was instead appointed head of ATVOD, the video-on-demand regulator, reporting to Ofcom, which (heavily) censors TV and radio. I campaigned against ATVOD’s bullying and arbitrary behaviour for some years.

A year ago, it was announced that ATVOD would be dissolved, and powers returned to Ofcom. This was greeted with applause by campaigners, but as I pointed out at the time – this was a case of jumping from the frying pan into the fire. Now, the new law will give the new regulator (which, we now know, is the BBFC) far stronger powers than ATVOD had. The scope of the regulator (as mentioned above) will be far broader than ATVOD’s “TV-like content”. Any commercial site carrying “porn” (i.e. nude video/imagery/audio…) and not properly verifying the age of its visitors will face sanctions from the BBFC. Furthermore, unlike ATVOD, the BBFC will have powers to sanction overseas providers. (Note – the age verification requirement is onerous, and has been banned by the US Supreme Court as censorship. I previously explained this issue in a post).

For what it’s worth, here’s a little guess: could Pete Johnson, a well known anti-porn activist regulator when he ran ATVOD, be about to make a triumphal return to the BBFC?

Until now, those backing this law have insisted that the sanctions will relate to withholding payment services, and similar. But in Parliament yesterday, the (presumably jubilant) BBFC director David Austin said that “sanctioned sites could find web properties blocked by IP address and de-indexed from search engines”.

I’ve been following the porn panic for almost ten years. For almost that long, it has been crystal-clear where all this is leading, though it has moved like treacle. Cleverly, the introduction of Britain’s first Internet censor has been justified, from start to end, by pornography.

Our cause isn’t helped by sexual freedom campaigners who still think this is about “kinkphobia” or “sexist porn censorship”. It really isn’t, it’s about our most fundamental rights of free expression. We’re witnessing the greatest attack on free speech in generations, and our press and politicians are still asleep on the job. Please help me wake them up.

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It’s About Censorship, Not Sexism

A year ago, the hideous ISP filters came into force. Although they had been sold as “porn filters”, they ended up blocking all sorts of things that had nothing to do with porn, from drug and self-harm information to nudity, even in non-sexual contexts. Initially, there was a spike of public outrage, but quickly the issue fell into the swamp of identity politics. On discovering that various gay and trans sites were blocked, the outrage became about homophobia and transphobia. ISPs moved to quickly unblock sites that had been identified by the press, and the media lost interest. The filters remained in place, and still today, up to 20% of sites are blocked by them. What could have become a broad-based movement for free speech fizzled out.

On Monday, a new law came into place, extending DVD censorship controls on to Internet videos. None of this was new or unexpected. The censorship rules which have caused so much outrage this week have been in place for many years.

The new law – which I explained on this blog – is probably the greatest attack on free expression that the UK has seen since the BBFC was empowered, in 1984, to censor all video works before they could be released. One of the BBFC’s first policy decisions was to ban all explicit sex on video. And so, the UK became one of the few democratic countries whose population was banned from legally buying porn on DVD, until this rule was eventually challenged by the porn industry in 2000. Forced to accept explicit sex acts, the BBFC (along with the police and CPS) clung to as much power as possible, and still refused to approve many, many “niche” sex acts on DVD.

By mid-decade, this barely mattered any more. Broadband Internet connections made DVD increasingly redundant, and likewise the BBFC, which saw its revenues steadily fall. Pete Johnson, a BBFC manager, tried to reverse this decline by introducing the BBFC Online scheme in 2007. But this had no statutory backing, and never took off.

In 2010, Johnson moved from the BBFC to head a new regulator, ATVOD, and (via a complex use/misuse of EU law), was empowered to implement regulations for VoD sites. His first – and only significant – action was to implement onerous age-verification requirements for UK porn sites: rules that were not implemented anywhere else in Europe. As a result, many businesses (including my own) closed, and others (such as Playboy’s UK operation) moved overseas, shedding jobs in the UK.

The new law adds power to ATVOD’s existing regulations, and for the first time, enforces the BBFC’s R18 rules online. This year’s fashion among the new-left has been to label everything sexist: toys are sexist, and computer games are sexist, and that comedian is sexist, and he’s sexist, and you’re sexist, and that tree is sexist… and so of course, by cherry-picking BBFC rules, the new law was also deemed to be sexist. Not a huge step towards Chinese-style Internet censorship that will harm everybody’s right to access information. Sexist.

So yes, it’s true (as well as ludicrous) that female ejaculation – aka squirting – is one of the many acts now banned, and easy to assume this is sexism (since, of course, male ejaculation is still allowed to be seen). In fact, within the BBFC’s reasoning process – which makes sense within its own, screwed-up logic – this makes perfect sense. The powers-that-be have deemed urination in a sexual context to be unacceptable, and since the evidence as to the nature of squirting is still far from conclusive, they have also banned that. Commentators have also complained that gagging on cocks is still approved; but in fact, the BBFC will cut such scenes if they are deemed to be “potentially life-threatening”. And they will allow similar acts to be carried out by a woman with a strap-on. And the ban on face-sitting isn’t an attempt by The Patriarchy to attack female domination, any more than the ban on strangulation of female models is an attack on male domination. The rules may be extremely stupid, but they’re not sexist.

Although the most immediate casualties of the law will be fetish sites, it’s not especially about targeting fetish either – that just happens to be the first thing in the way of the bulldozer. As already mentioned, the BBFC tried as hard to ban “vanilla” sex as it did to ban kink. It’s just that it lost that particular battle in court.

So what is this about? As the name of our campaign suggests, it’s about both Sex and Censorship. It’s odd that almost nobody noticed what actually happened on Monday: well over 99% of the world’s websites are now technically illegal here in the UK. Not because of the R18 thing, but the other part: the one requiring sites to validate a visitor’s age before they’re allowed to see any naughty bit.

There are multiple interests here: anti-sex moralists (of both religious and feminist varieties) who are truly outraged by sex, and want it all banned; vested interests that stand to earn money and power from censorship (ATVOD and the BBFC, for example); and authoritarian interests that are looking to find excuses to block online content. In the latter case, porn is just one of a number of excuses, as are terrorism and copyright theft. Those familiar with Orwell will recognise that the British state, liberal on the surface, is deeply authoritarian beneath.

This week’s public outrage is an opportunity to build the movement for free expression to a new level, and it would be a shame if certain “It’s all about meeeee!” narratives were allowed to distract from that.

The new law is actually a means to an end, not an end in itself. A process that began (suitably) in 1984 is still rolling along. If you would like to support as we build the case against censorship, please join our list or even send a donation, large or small. Next year is going to be “interesting” for the UK, and not in a good way.

Alert: New ATVOD Anti-Porn Censorship Law to Arrive 1st December

On 1st December a new law governing online porn will come into force in the UK. This is known as the Audiovisual Media Services Regulations 2014, and amends the 2003 Communications Act.

The law applies to VoD services regulated by ATVOD, and imposes restrictions on the types of content that can be legally sold by UK VoD providers.

There has been much confusion over what this law means: this post is an attempt to provide some clarity.

Effects on Consumers

There are no (direct) implications for porn consumers. The law affects UK-based providers only. Consumers are still at liberty to access any online porn they want, and will only be affected if their favourite British website happens to be censored by the new law. Of course, existing laws (like the 2008 “extreme porn law”) still apply. However, see further implications below.

Effects on Providers

The new law only affects providers of On Demand Programme Services (ODPS) that are regulated by ATVOD. ATVOD’s power comes from the EU AVMS regulations, which relate only to “TV-like” services. In most European countries, most websites (including adult websites) are not considered to be TV-like. However, in the UK, ATVOD has chosen to apply the regulations far more broadly, and encompass a wide range of services, including adult sites. This gives ATVOD the power to regulate, and control, any website it decides is TV-like.

Note that ATVOD has repeatedly been struck down by Ofcom regarding its broad definition of TV-like. The Sun newspaper, the BBC, and a number of others, have successfully appealed that various services cannot be considered TV-like, and so have escaped regulation by ATVOD. Recently, a dominatrix also appealed that her site, Urban Chick Supremacy Cell (NSFW), was not TV-like, and won. Sites that have removed themselves from ATVOD regulation in this way are not bound by the new law.

What Does the Law Change?

The new law puts a restriction on the strength of porn that can be sold on regulated services. Previously, any pornographic content that did not breach existing content laws (for example “obscene” material, and child abuse imagery) could be sold. Now, only content equivalent to the BBFC’s R18 rating can be sold: this brings VoD services into line with DVD.

R18 is a strange thing: it is a set of weird and arbitrary censorship rules decided between the BBFC, the police and the CPS. There appear to be no rational explanations for most of the R18 rules – they are simply a set of moral judgements designed by people who have struggled endlessly to stop the British people from watching pornography.

In practise, this means that video of various fetish activities can no longer be sold by regulated UK services – the people most affected will be those running fetish sites of various types. This may explain ATVOD’s apparent obsession with chasing down dommes who sell their own videos: most femdom sites would now be illegal to run in the UK (at least, if they are “TV-like”).

The list of rules governing R18 is long and often vague, but they include:

  • Urination in various sexual contexts is banned, as is female ejaculation
  • Spanking, caning and whipping beyond a gentle level are not allowed
  • “Life-endangering activities” such as strangulation and facesitting cannot be carried out
  • Fisting is banned (if all knuckles are inserted), as are other large insertions
  • Bound and gagged models may not be featured, as there needs to be a clear way in which the model can withdraw consent

Why Has This Been Done?

The introduction of the R18 standard into law is essentially a way to circumvent European standards. The EU’s AVMS directive specifies that content that “might seriously impair minors” should be restricted so that under-18s cannot normally  view it. However, this is a test to be answered by psychologists, not government censors. The UK media regulator Ofcom looked at the results of research by 20 European governments, and stated: “No country found evidence that sexually explicit material harms minors”.

This is inconvenient for a government that wants an excuse to censor pornography, regardless of any evidence of harm. Introducing the R18 test removes the need for objective evidence, and instead allows censors to make arbitrary decisions.

Although the law is introduced under the pretext of “protecting children”, it actually affects adults and children alike.

Implications

In practise, very few people are directly affected: most businesses selling strong fetish material online left the UK years ago for other European countries or the United States (the well-known fetish site kink.com (NSFW) is run by a Briton who moved to San Francisco to escape our ludicrously censorious climate).

However, this law was clearly introduced to further ATVOD’s plans to restrict what sexual content can be accessed by UK citizens, and will doubtless be used to justify further censorship in various forms. ATVOD have long wanted to stop banks from processing payments for services that don’t meet their tight regulations, and have tried (and failed so far) to introduce licensing of non-UK sites. Watch this space for more news at it emerges (please join our mailing list for updates).