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Three Massive Threats to Online Liberty in the UK

For British users at least, the Internet as we know it is about to change fundamentally. This development isn’t sudden: I’ve tracked the rising censorship regime for 10 years, from its early days as a voluntary pilot project called BBFC Online. But to most people, used to having access to most online content, the changes due to begin later this year will be seismic.

This shift represents a significant power-grab by elements of the British state that have resented their loss of power as the Internet has come to supplant TV, radio and newspapers. In particular, this refers to the media regulator Ofcom, which has amassed huge power to censor TV and radio, and has seen itself diminished by the rising power of the digital network. The rise in censorship is, in part, due to Ofcom (and its government supporters) trying to rebuild its old powers of control. But the coming changes go far further than that.

Threat #1: The Digital Economy Act (2017) introduced an official online censor

This issue has been one of my primary focuses. As presented by the government, the DEA simply introduced steps to protect children from viewing pornography. But this misses the point. In fact, the DEA creates the role of online content “regulator” (i.e. censor), with the power to block websites that don’t comply to its rules. Initially, its rules relate to sexual content (not just porn), so can be presented as sex-related. But the rules can – and will – be changed easily. The key change is the appointment of the BBFC, under the aegis of Ofcom, as the country’s first official Internet censor.

Although the law was passed in 2017, it was due to go live in April 2018. This was delayed, most likely for technical reasons, and is now expected in late-2018. When it goes live, most sexually explicit content online will be blocked by ISPs. The only content to be allowed through will be hosted on the handful of sites that age-verify their users.

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This significant change to British culture has largely been dismissed by news editors as “ah well, it’s just porn”. Likewise, campaigning organisations like the Open Rights Group have focused too narrowly on the threat to pornography rather than the far broader threat to free expression. Yet Ofcom and the government haven’t tried hard to disguise the fact that the regime will be extended beyond sexual content in future – porn is just the testing ground.

Threat #2: the drive towards “online safety”

This month, the government announced ominous plans to improve “online safety”, while exhibiting a shyness to explain what that actually means. This new law will take a couple of years to put into place: the likelihood being that this will be the second, far broader wave of censorship following the “porn block” test phase. As I describe in Porn Panic!, sections of the feminist movement in particular have been keen to describe speech as “online violence” to deliberately blur the line between expression and action. This law signals an extension of existing powers against hateful or merely offensive content.

Threat #3: laws against “sex-trafficking”

As everyone knows, sex-trafficking is one of the great threats of the 21st century. Except it isn’t. Fueled largely by anecdotes rather than solid data, the anti-prostitution and anti-immigration movements have united to create a scare-story that has gripped the media and political class. Upon the back of this myth rides a huge new industry – dubbed the Rescue Industry by researcher and author Laura Agustin.

The shortage of victims doesn’t stop the Rescue Industry – it simply raises its rhetoric to ever greater levels of hysteria to drown out sober commentators. And now, sex-trafficking is the excuse for America’s greatest ever attack on Internet freedom. The FOSTA act, signed recently into law by President Trump, criminalises online platforms for enabling sex trafficking. In practise, this means that not only escort listing services, but hookup and dating sites, and even Google, have been forced to censor their platforms. Craigslist closed its personals section in the UK as well as the US. Now, in a huge escalation of the porn panic, all sex might be sex trafficking, and so all online attempts to find sexual partners may criminalised.

In the short term, should this idea cross the Atlantic, this raises a threat to British escort listings sites like AdultWork and Viva Street (the latter is already likely to struggle to implement the age verification measures within the Digital Economy Act). This, despite the fact that prostitution is broadly legal in the UK, unlike in America. In the longer term, any site with user-submitted content, from social networks to forums, may face problems.

The principle that platforms are now responsible for the content they host will inevitably seep into UK culture. Combined with the blocking effects of the Digital Economy Act and the planned drive towards “online safety”, the direction of travel is obvious: only those sites – like Facebook  – that can spend vast amounts of time and money policing their content can be confident they will survive.

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SESTA, FOSTA, the End of Craigslist Personals, and the War on Sex

I have long predicted that the porn panic – the war on sexual expression – would engulf content far beyond pornography. The takeover of the British anti-censorship movement by members of the fetish-porn scene has thus been frustrating, as it has suggested that the threat to free speech is about the needs of people with unusual sexual tastes. I have predicted, in particular, that dating sites like Craigslist would be hit hard, as they allow people to post adult images on their ads. Last week, Craigslist did indeed close its dating section, but in response to legal changes in the US, rather than the UK.

While the UK’s attacks on Internet freedom have focused on the “need to protect children from pornography”, US attacks have focused on prostitution (labelled as “sex trafficking”). Using the latter excuse, the United States just approved a pair of laws, known as SESTA and FOSTA, which criminalise online services that enable “sex trafficking”. While this might seem a worthy effort, when one scratches the surface, we find the hand of anti-sex feminism at work, as usual, and the story is not as it seems.

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The trafficking panic has been rising for a decade, and has long ago been exposed as largely mythical by tireless campaigners such as Brooke Magnanti and Laura Agustin. Magnanti’s book The Sex Myth outlines how the panic rose in the UK, leading to Parliament approving funds to tackle sex trafficking; but although anti-trafficking campaigners had claimed thousands of victims, the police could find hardly any. Agustin, in her book Sex in the Margins, outlines how illegal immigrant women enter the sex industry voluntarily as an alternative to lower paid (illegal) hotel work, but are dismissed as “victims” by campaigners.

Illegal immigrants who sell sex are thus labelled “trafficked women”, and then rescued. Agustin refers to the anti-trafficking movement as the Rescue Industry. The Rescue industry is, in reality, a merger between the anti-prostitution movement and the anti-immigration movement. Now, when brothels are raided to “rescue” trafficked women, the women are often sent to asylum camps before being deported – hardly the rescue of helpless victims that people tend to imagine.

Despite the fact that genuine victims of sex-trafficking are more rare than one would assume from reading the headlines, politicians have been persuaded otherwise. The first American victim of the panic was Backpage.com, which last year was forced to drop its famous escort listings. SESTA / FOSTA is the latest example of this. American sex workers have strongly opposed the new law, arguing that without places to advertise, they will be forced underground, and inevitably face more dangers as a result. The police too say that street prostitution has increased since Backpage was closed. But the Rescue Industry is now a well-funded juggernaut with the power to shout far louder than sex workers.

Once escort ads were banned, US sex workers moved to classified ad platforms like Craigslist, which have never allowed blatant escort advertising. When SESTA / FESTA was approved last week, Craigslist had little choice but to close its dating section – a little corner of Internet freedom that has thrived for years.

Although SESTA / FOSTA doesn’t apply in the UK (where anyway, prostitution is legal), Craigslist is a US business – so the UK has lost one of its most vibrant dating and adult contact services.

What is the future for UK escort listing sites like Adultwork.com and Viva Street? On paper, there is no reason for them not to continue. But I predict that the Digital Economy Act, which already enables porn censorship, will inevitably be extended to block new categories of content, and that “trafficking” will feature in the next list of targets.