Tag Archives: cps

UK Obscenity Law Update: Good News for BDSM Fans, Pornhub and Government Censors

Yesterday, the Crown Prosecution Service announced that they would be loosening their obscenity guidelines to formally allow – for the first time – strong fetish material, so long as it features consenting adults. This news was greeted with joy by fetishists and campaigners. But it was also an inevitable step towards stronger censorship of the Internet by the UK government.

Four years ago, the sex worker activist Charlotte Rose organised perhaps the most entertaining protest ever seen in the UK: the face-sitting protest, outside Parliament. I was one of the speakers at the event, which was called in response to a sly act of government censorship. Without even calling a parliamentary vote, the government had extended DVD pornography rules so they were now applied to Internet video.

Among the acts now banned were “dangerous” acts (hence face-sitting, which could in theory suffocate someone – I kid you not), watersports, female ejaculation, and fetish material including most spanking, sado-masochism and bondage. At a stroke, thousands of porn sites (including all of the free “tube” sites) became technically illegal. You probably didn’t notice, as nothing actually happened. The tubes, and many other sites, continued to stream face-sitting, spanking and squirting material into the UK, and British consumers continued to watch it.

The law change was a failed attempt by the media regulator ATVOD to gain the power to close down overseas websites. Their cunning plan was to approach banks, point out that they were clearing payments for content that was illegal in the UK, and ask them to withdraw their services from the offending sites. The banks, however, didn’t see much of a problem. The material was legal in the US, and the new law, having been sneaked in by the back door, didn’t have much standing. The regulator had failed, and porn had won.

ATVOD was later scrapped, and Ofcom, the mighty media regulator (and censor) took over the online remit. This time, there would be no half-measures. In 2017, the Digital Economy Act was passed. For the first time, a British state censor would have the right to order websites to be blocked if they didn’t conform to UK regulations. The Act allowed porn sites to be blocked on two grounds:

  1. If they didn’t verify the ages of visitors, or
  2. If they contained extreme material.

Now, porn businesses based in America or elsewhere would surely have to pay attention. And they did. Mindgeek (the giant owner of Pornhub and other leading tube sites) began to play ball, and announced it would be conforming to the new UK law. This gave them two massive headaches:

  1. How to verify the ages of millions of UK visitors, and
  2. What to do about all the material that was US-legal but UK-illegal.

The first problem has occupied the industry for some time (and set champagne corks popping in the boardrooms of age verification companies). But not much attention has been paid to the second problem.

The problem now was that big porn companies have accepted (albeit reluctantly) that they will enforce age verification for UK customers (hint – you can use a VPN to mask your location). But why would Mindgeek and others bother to enforce the age verification rule if their content is illegal in the UK anyway?

If the new British censor – the BBFC – was unable to bring the porn industry on-board with its new regime, it would lose all credibility. Unless Mindgeek signed up, the new censorship law (due to go live this coming April) would fail. So, just for once, the interests of the porn industry and the British government coincided with those of the fetish community. In a nutshell, the change to the law transformed an unworkable system of censorship into a viable one.

So the timing of yesterday’s announcement is little surprise: unless UK obscenity laws were brought into line with American ones before April, the new censorship system would be a flop. It is of course wonderful (and long overdue) news that UK porn users will no longer be criminalised for enjoying a bit of face-sitting porn in the privacy of their own homes. But like much good news from the British authorities, it came with a catch.

Censorship Laws Used To Attack Homosexuals

In September 2011, a man accessed a legal gay porn site from a hotel room’s computer. A subsequent guest saw the site listed in the browser history and (for reasons best known to herself) complained to the hotel management. Six months later, the man was arrested and his computer seized. Police later charged him with making indecent images of children and possession of an image of a child being abused.

This week, the charges were dropped. The images were all found to come from legal web sites and were of young-looking men, but not of children. What is truly bizarre is that the police had not bothered to carry out the most basic checks on their evidence before presenting the case to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). Neither had the CPS questioned the poor state of the evidence before deciding to take the case to court. Meanwhile, a man had been publicly linked to child abuse – a slur that ruins lives, whether or not it has any substance.

The case collapsed because the man’s lawyer, Myles Jackman, carried out the basic evidence-checking that the authorities had failed to do, and found that the images came from a site that had retained model identification information under America’s USC 2257 law. Even when he presented this evidence to the CPS, they failed to drop charges for several more months. After two years of having his name dragged through the mud (during which time his father died, never seeing the outcome of the case), the man was exonerated.

Jackman believes there is strong evidence that the CPS uses its powers to persecute gay men. The same appears to apply to the police. Indeed, after homosexuality was legalised, the police continued to raid gay venues, using the Obscene Publications Act (OPA) rather than the previous laws that had allowed them to directly target homosexuals.

In the infamous Spanner case of 1987, police prosecuted gay men who had videoed their sadomasochistic parties. Although their acts all took place in private, and between consenting adults, they were convicted of causing wounding and actual bodily harm; the judge ruled that a person had no right to consent be assaulted (although this ruling doesn’t seem to apply in TV shows like Jackass, which are deemed suitable for UK TV broadcast).

In the 2012 Michael Peacock case, another gay man was prosecuted, this time under the OPA, for distributing “obscene” gay S&M videos. OPA prosecutions usually result in a guilty plea to avoid the publicity and cost of a trial, but Peacock chose to defend himself (Jackman was his solicitor), and was found not guilty by a jury, in a decision that left the very basis of UK obscenity law in tatters.

Also in 2012, Simon Walsh (who is, you might have guessed, a gay man) was charged under the ridiculous 2008 “extreme porn” law, for possession of images of sex between consenting gay men; again, he was found not guilty, but only at the cost of his career and at huge personal expense.

The state, it appears, has not yet accepted that homosexuality is legal. Furthermore, the existence of a series of badly written censorship laws has given the police and CPS the power to harass people at will, whether for homophobic or other reasons. Laws drafted to protect children from abuse,  and to “protect” the public from obscene material (whether or not the public needs or wants such protection) are used as tools of persecution.

The original British censorship law, the OPA, seems to serve no useful purpose. Denmark scrapped its obscenity laws in 1969, yet Danish society failed to collapse. But in recent decades, an endless stream of new censorship laws have been added to the statute books, most of them more illiberal than the OPA, which at least allows the accused to request a trial by jury.

Somehow, most democracies survive without the weight of state censorship power that the British authorities have at their disposal. Indeed, some of these laws would be unconstitutional in the United States. Perhaps it is time to join the dots: Spanner, Peacock, Walsh, as well as this week’s events, as well as many others. Censorship appears to gain us nothing as a society, but it erodes the rights of law-abiding citizens, and especially those of sexual minorities.