(This article first appeared in the i newspaper under the title “A proposed ban on teen sexting is just another excuse to spy on our phones”)
Taken in isolation, Jeremy Hunt’s suggestion that teenage “sexting” should be banned might seem like one of those quaintly out-of-touch things that fuddy-duddy Tory ministers tend to say. After all, a generation of teens have had access to camera phones and smartphones, and have (unsurprisingly) used them to share photos and videos of their naughty bits. And teens were the first adopters of SMS 20 years ago, and (also unsurprisingly) used the technology to send each other dirty messages. Hunt’s target group, everybody under 18, is an odd suggestion, given the age of consent is 16.
And then, when you take a moment to consider how such a ban could be implemented, you realise just how ludicrous the suggestion is. Does Hunt seriously think that mobile phone networks, WhatsApp, Apple, Facebook, Gmail and a plethora of other platforms should all install technology to ensure that under-18s don’t send each other sexual content? And if they do, then what happens when they catch a repeat offender? Do the morality police arrest them, and perhaps take them away for a programme of modesty and decency training?
But although the temptation is to gently mock politicians who say such silly things, such outbursts should be taken seriously, especially in the current authoritarian climate. As I outline in my book Porn Panic!, sex is regularly used as an excuse to justify attacks on both privacy and free speech (terrorism being another favoured excuse). The Snoopers’ Charter represents the greatest attack on online privacy in any democratic country, ever. And the recent announcement that porn sites are to be blocked is also unprecedented in a “free” country. Britain is trying its best to become China.
If you’ve been paying attention for the past few years, you’ll have seen multiple government attempts to spy on, or block, Internet communications, using a variety of excuses. Perhaps the first example came during the 2011 riots, when the government and police blamed services like Blackberry Messenger and Facebook. Then in early 2015, in the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris, David Cameron threatened to block encrypted services like WhatsApp and iMessage. Twitter, a popular platform for free speech, regularly comes under attack by assorted moralists and control-freaks for not censoring its users enough. So far, these companies have – to their credit – largely resisted UK government attempts at intrusion, and even strengthened their encryption. They are mostly US-based, and protected by the US Constitution. This infuriates the UK authorities.
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To implement Jeremy Hunt’s apparently simple anti-sexting proposal would require wide-scale automated spying using intelligent text-recognition and image-recognition technology. Such technology would, of course, be able to spot a far broader range of thoughtcrime than sexting. And once in place, of course mission creep would set in. Why not use it to identify drug users, tax evaders, or racists?
Some would argue that this is desirable: after all, if you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide, right? But if we are to introduce automated policing of speech and behaviour, and erode our right to privacy on this scale, we need a serious discussion in Parliament and beyond. Instead, our rights to privacy and free speech are being eroded step-by-step, in a series of small, quiet nudges.