Tag Archives: digital economy bill

Vote Civil Liberties!

Almost everyone in politics says they support civil liberties, but for most, this is mere lip service. There are tragically few civil libertarians in Parliament (most of those that were there previously were Liberal Democrats, who were largely wiped out in 2010). Neither of the large parties have strong records in this area. Labour’s last flirtation with civil liberty was under the Home Secretary Roy Jenkins in the 1960s, and he abandoned the party in the 1980s. The left and right wings of politics are almost indistinguishable on this measure. They’re distinguished by economic views, not by a belief in civil liberties.

Today we face new and fundamental attacks on our civil liberties. And yet, as the political spectrum has polarised to left and right, liberalism is at a low ebb. Just as a vigorous defence of civil liberties has become essential, so the political class – and political activists – have lost interest in civil liberties.

Theresa May, an authoritarian Home Secretary turned authoritarian Prime Minister, has overseen deep attacks on civil liberties. Of greatest concern are two new laws:

The Digital Economy Act (2017)

The Digital Economy Act, under the guise of “protecting children from online porn”, has introduced the most powerful system of censorship in the democratic world, which will kick into action in 2018. As often predicted on this blog, no sooner had the law been passed than Theresa May was licking her lips at the prospect of extending further and further. With almost no coverage in the press, we are about to lose access to the Internet as we knew it.

The Investigatory Powers Act (2016)

The IPA (aka the Snoopers’ Charter) effectively removes our right to online privacy. Theresa May’s early attempts to introduce this law were blocked by the Liberal Democrats while in coalition (we should thank the Lib Dems for this act, and many others, but the endless obsession with tuition fees eclipses their many successes in power). It is a draconian piece of legislation that has no place in a democracy. As the US whistle-blower and liberty campaigner Edward Snowden tweeted:

Brexit

The coming Brexit only compounds these problems, removing us from EU law that protects our online rights. It is likely that both of these laws could be challenged, if we Remained. But the British people, in their infinite wisdom, have opted to Leave. And the likely economic decline inherent in Brexit will only distract further from civil liberties: freedom is a luxury for the secure and the well-fed.

Where is the Opposition?

The good news is that there is a surge of political interest among the young. The bad news is that this enthusiasm has been thrown behind a conservative-left clique with no great interest in civil liberties. As a result, the election debate has been dominated by the usual economic arguments, and civil liberties have been swept aside. We end up in the strange situation where both main parties have swung leftward. Economically, the Tories have snatched the centre-ground abandoned by the Corbynites, while Labour, lacking a coherent analysis of economic problems or solutions, has become obsessed with nationalising stuff (an old fascination of the left which which is unlikely to resolve any problems).

But both party leaders are authoritarian by nature. Corbyn may (correctly) attack the British love-in with Saudi Arabia, but he has less to say about other regimes. Indeed, he has expressed strong support for the socialist regime in Venezuela (and has nothing to say about the suspension of democracy, the shootings of protesters, or the steep rise in poverty there). He is also muted in his criticism of Iran (and has pocketed money from a state-owned TV company). In short, we’ve returned to cold war politics, where both left and right are comfortable with state repression and murder. They agree that repression is OK – they just differ in who the bad guys are.

The UK Will Block Millions of Sites
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Corbyn, mistakenly viewed by many of his followers as a progressive, has put up no opposition whatsoever to May’s anti-liberty putsch. The Digital Economy Act was passed with Labour support. Shamefully, Corbyn’s Labour chose to abstain on the Snoopers Charter vote, rather than join the Liberal Democrats in voting against. They allowed it to be passed into law without challenge. Furthermore, Labour’s manifesto makes no mention to any changes to these laws. They will remain, whoever wins this election.

And as for Brexit: Jeremy Corbyn comes from the anti-EU wing of Labour politics, and has never hidden his euroscepticism (or at least, didn’t hide it until 2015, when it would have hampered his election as leader). Of all the party leaders, he is second only to UKIP’s Paul Nuttall in his enthusiasm for Brexit. And yet, many of his followers are pro-EU, and apparently unaware of his views on the matter, or of the role he played in quietly helping the Leave campaign to victory. Like the Tories, Labour has committed to ending free movement in the EU: Corbynites think this attitude is racist in Theresa May, but ignore it in their Chosen One.

There appear to be two Jeremy Corbyns: the europhobic 1970s throwback I’ve followed since he was elected in 1983 (I was a teenage leftie at the time), and the imaginary one his supporters believe in. Just as in the Monty Python classic, the Life of Brian, Jeremy Corbyn is their Messiah, and they won’t let the real person cloud their enthusiasm for the saviour they imagine him to be.

Vote Civil Liberties!

There is a clear choice in this election, but it’s not between Labour and the Tories. The line is between statist, pro-Brexit parties (Labour and the Conservatives) and internationalist, civil liberties parties (the Liberal Democrats and the Greens). The SNP appear to lie somewhere in the middle. The Liberal Democrats have followed up their opposition to the Snoopers Charter with a commitment to repeal it (you won’t find such a commitment in the Labour Manifesto). And only the Lib Dems tried to oppose the introduction of the “porn censor” within the Digital Economy Act.

On Europe, the Lib Dems have also committed to fight for free movement in the EU (LabCon have committed to end it), and have promised a second referendum on the Brexit deal, including an option to Remain.

There is, of course, no chance of them winning this election. But, whether the election is won by authoritarian bullies of left or right, we desperately need more civil libertarians in Parliament, and there are almost none in the main parties. The Lib Dems and the Greens deserve support for flying the civil liberties, pro-EU flag. Please consider lending them your support.

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Will the BBFC Block Whores of Yore, A Sex Work History Site?

Whores of Yore is a website, run by academic Kate Lister, which describes itself as follows: “We are proudly sex-positive. An inter-disciplinary, pro-sex worker rights hub, dedicated to exploring the history of human sexuality and challenging shame and stigma.” (Here’s the link – please note it’s a teensy bit NSFW, at least if your boss is a religious fundamentalist or an anti-sex feminist).

Kate Lister

Along with intelligent writing and resources on sex work issues, the site includes a gallery of Vintage Erotica (click at your peril!) which ranges from topless imagery to some quite naughty stuff. Who knew our great-great grannies were getting up to this sort of thing? Few people would consider these images to be pornographic but then, porn is such a tricky thing to define.

Unswayed by this apparent problem, the government has promised (in the current Digital Economy Bill) to block pornography unless it’s behind an age verification check (one that forces you to enter your credit card, mobile phone or other personal details). So what definition of porn does the bill use?

The bill defines porn as video, imagery or audio that the BBFC (the video censor which will now become the Internet censor) would classify at either 18 or R18 certificate. And while R18 refers to explicit, hardcore action, 18 is reserved for the soft stuff: faked sex, striptease and even simple nudity, if the censors decide that it might be titillating. An added level of complication is that the BBFC only currently classifies video, not imagery. And as for audio… what do they consider audio porn to consist of? Well, we’ll soon find out.

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

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.

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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.

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.

Theresa May is Watching You
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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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