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Censored UK: Where Are We Now?

While we at Sex & Censorship are following – with increasing trepidation – the endless drift towards censorship in the UK, we’re sometimes reminded that many of our supporters can’t keep up with all the news and events. That’s hardly surprising: Britain is currently experiencing wave after wave of moral panic, and it seems that hardly a week goes by without more bad news for free expression. So here is a brief round-up of some of the main issues comprising British censorship at present. I’ve undoubtedly missed stuff: feel free to add it below. Of course, a short blog post can’t hope to explain everything that’s taking place. I’m currently documenting British censorship in a book, Porn Panic: please join our mailing list to be alerted when this is published.

Law

  • The Obscene Publications Act: the grandaddy of all censorship laws, outlawing the distribution of content that might “deprave and corrupt” its audience.
  • Video Recordings Act: since 1984(!) the BBFC (a private organisation) has had the right to censor videos and DVDs, and they seem to have a particular problem with pornography, making UK video among the most censored in Europe.
  • Protection of Children Act: originally designed to criminalise images of child abuse, but sometimes misused, even to harass viewers of legitimate pornography.
  • Dangerous Cartoons Act: yes, you can become a sex offender for possessing a sexual cartoon featuring a character that might appear to be under-age – such as seen in popular Japanese anime cartoons.
  • Extreme Porn Law: three years in jail for possessing images of what the government considers to be “extreme pornography” – even if they are images of yourself participating in consensual sex with your own partner.
  • Rape Porn: a planned extension to the extreme porn law whereby you can be jailed for possessing an image of a sexual act that appears to be non-consensual (whether it is actually consensual or not). Quick, delete those bondage photos!
  • Gagging law: no, it’s not about blowjobs: it’s a serious attack on the rights of political campaigning organisations to speak freely, disguised as a law to regulate lobbying.

Regulation

  • Although they’ve never been mandated by Parliament or the British people to do so, Ofcom have consistently refused to allow hardcore sex on TV: even on adult channels at 3am. Almost all other EU countries, and the US, allow porn to be broadcast.
  • A private body, ATVOD, has taken it upon itself to drive much of the online porn industry out of the country, or out of business, by mandating strict website guidelines that make profitable business effectively impossible. They claim an EU directive gives them this right, although strangely, none of the other 26 EU member states have taken this action, and erotic/sexual material continues to be sold legally elsewhere in Europe without such restrictions.
  • Internet blocking: There were at least two attempts to introduce mandatory Internet censorship laws into Parliament last year; while these both failed, we expect similar laws to have more success in the near future.

ISPs

  • Mobile networks: since 2004, mobile operators have voluntarily censored Internet access from phones until the owner proves they are over 18. This censorship covers all sorts of material, and many adults as well as teenagers are denied access to much of the Internet from their mobile phones.
  • Broadband filtering: since December, ISPs have voluntarily begun to offer “porn filters” to home-owners, under the pretext of “protecting children”. However, these filters block, not just porn, but dozens of categories of content for entire households, and offer the bill payer a means of restricting Internet access for others in the same household.

Policing Speech

A raft of laws against “malicious communication” and “terrorism” have been used to jail people for speech alone. Increasingly, the important line between expression and action is becoming blurred in the eyes of the UK authorities. These days, writing can be considered terrorism, and jokes tweeted in poor taste can see you dragged into court.

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Academia

There is a worrying trend towards increasing censorship within universities, which (one would have hoped) should be beacons of free expression, debate and discussion. For example, several student unions have banned the Sun newspaper, not for its dodgy news or political bias, but for displaying that most terrible thing, the female nipple.

What now?

Censored UK is a reality. We struggle with limited resources to expose these attacks on free expression, and campaign against those who try to push us even further in this direction. If any of this worries or outrages you, please donate to our campaign and help us restore some sanity!

Censoring Self-Harm Sites

One of the categories of content that is blocked by BT and other ISPs relates to self-harm. BT promises that its filters will block ‘sites that promote or encourage self-harm or self-injury’. But as ever, real life is far more nuanced than the headlines. One might be immediately repelled by the idea that THE INTERNET IS MAKING TEENAGERS CUT THEMSELVES (as the Daily Mail might express it), but does this reflect reality? Self-harm is an upsetting idea, but why do people do it, and can it blamed on websites? Alternatively, could sites that provide a forum for openly discussing the subject be therapeutic to those who use them? And are there really sites that exist simply to ‘promote or encourage’ people to self-harm?

One site related to self-harm is Safe Haven, a forum dedicated to discussing related issues, and a quick view of the site seemed to indicate this was an important resource to those who used it. Thread titles such as ‘I Want To Stop Self-Injuring Because…’, ‘To Every Soul That Suffers’, ‘How to deal with relapsing?’ and ‘I don’t know what to do’ indicated that this is a place for troubled people to find company and share their pain. Yet I found the site to be blocked on at least one network (EE).

The very idea that happy, stable people might find such a forum and thus become self-harmers seems (to me as a layperson) to be unlikely. More likely is that this is a classic example of shooting the messenger, which is an impulse that so often underlies censorship: perhaps if we can hide the bad things, they will no longer exist.

But I am no expert, so I approached Dr David Ley, a psychologist based in New Mexico and occasional blogger at this site, and asked him for his views on the site, and the wisdom of blocking it. He responded that, while some people fear that self-harming could escalate to something worse – even to suicide – the evidence appears to contradict this.

‘Although self-harming behavior is quite frightening and concerning, there is actually very little solid evidence that such behavior leads to suicide. In fact, it may be the exact opposite. We often intuitively expect that such behavior is “on the road” to building up to a suicide attempt. But, in fact, there are many reasons why people engage in such behaviors, and many of them are in fact, quite adaptive. For instance, over the years, I’ve had patients describe to me that such behavior can help them “ground themselves in reality,” when they are feeling psychically distant from themselves or the world. Others have told me that the pain can help themselves distance themselves from emotional pain.’

And as to the wisdom of trying to prevent troubled people from accessing such information:

‘It is unfortunate and likely counter-productive, to use filtering to try to prevent people from exploring all sides of this issue. It smacks of the old “Just say no” attempts to prevent drug use in children. Such efforts invariably fail, because children and teens know very well that such issues are not as two-dimensional as they are presented. By restricting access to information on sites such as this, which might glorify or encourage self-harming behaviors, filtering is also preventing access to dialogue and ideas from peers who are also attempting to control these desires. Such dialogue and ideas are much more likely to resonate with individuals who are struggling with self-harming desires themselves. Further, there is a great deal of information presented on the site that might be characterized as “harm reduction,” describing how to prevent infection, increase healing, and prevent serious injury. Again, a black and white presentation of the self-harm issue, as reflected by the filtering, actually may increase the dangers of such consequences in individuals who self-harm, and don’t have access to this information.’

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I contacted Safe Haven to let them know that their site was being blocked. The site is based in the United States, and the owner seemed somewhat bemused to learn that her site had been censored in Britain. She pointed out that sites like hers are often the first place that troubled teenagers go to when they decide it is time to talk, and can be instrumental in helping them gain the confidence to speak with parents or health services:

‘Young people usually feel safer first reaching out online and getting support and advice from others in similar situations, or who can at least empathize. I feel some people might think young people should only be confiding in trusted adults like their parents or educators, or those manning helplines, but self-harm and mental health issues are taboo and cause such feelings of shame. Sites like mine allow young people to talk freely without worry that people will look at them askance for mentioning self-harm, or without worry they’ll be bullied for being a self-harmer. I see a lot of the members of the forum telling young people to reach out in real life.’

As in so many cases, the impulse to censor something that appears harmful may itself be harmful. The same applies to another blocked subcategory, ‘sites that encourage suicide’, which is, for some reason, tucked away within BT’s Weapons and Violence category. It seems highly unlikely that a non-suicidal person would find such a site and become suicidal; and it seems likely that a suicidal person may find the ability to share their feelings with others to be beneficial, and even life-saving.

The British are famous for our stiff-upper-lip culture, and yet according to the Mental Health Foundation, we also have among the highest self-harming rates in Europe. Perhaps the idea that difficult things are best not seen, heard or discussed is a dangerous one; but this is the driving force behind the UK’s Internet filters.

#CensoredUK – Day of Action – Thursday 12 December 2013

Online day of action: #CensoredUK Thursday 12th December. Please copy and send the following tweet (and see below for more sample tweets) – and follow us on Twitter.

For three decades, the UK has been sleepwalking into censorship. It would be inaccurate to say we still are: now we are running at full speed! Most of the censorship measures have been introduced under the banner of “protecting children”; now we are told our children are under threat from the Internet. And yet no reliable evidence of a threat has been produced.

On the contrary, a generation has grown up with Internet access, and teenage pregnancy rates are at their lowest since 1969. Since domestic violence cases peaked at over 1.1m in 1993, they have fallen by over 70%. And these trends don’t just affect the UK. In the United States, rates of sexual violence fell by 64% from 1995 to 2010.

But the evidence doesn’t deter those who want to limit access to the Internet for British citizens. This Thursday, a conference will take place in London, aimed at persuading the government that even more controls are needed – again, to “protect children.”

This Thursday, please use the #CensoredUK hashtag on Twitter, Facebook and other social media to register your opposition to any further moves to censor the Internet: the UK must have the same access to information as citizens in other democratic countries.

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Here are some sample tweets you can copy and adapt… or just write your own (and don’t forget the hashtag). Let’s get this M***F**** trending!

  1. Join the #CensoredUK online day of action! Click for details: http://bit.ly/1aUtIsn
  2. Is the UK sleepwalking into censorship? http://onforb.es/1gYULrT #CensoredUK
  3. Cameron: UK will block “extremist” web sites http://bit.ly/1jMkeHv #CensoredUK
  4. Sky, TalkTalk, BT, Virgin to introduce Internet filters http://bbc.in/J4JNVX #CensoredUK
  5. China praises UK Internet censorship plans http://bit.ly/1hM5aKj #CensoredUK
  6. Tim Berners-Lee warns of Internet censorship rise http://bit.ly/19BfjRT #CensoredUK
  7. UK “porn filter” will also censor political speech http://bit.ly/18B4dfN #CensoredUK
  8. “Porn filter” will also block conspiracy theories http://bit.ly/IP1b0j #CensoredUK
  9. British companies are blocking gay websites http://bit.ly/J4Li6l #CensoredUK
  10. Why is the UK the most censored country in Europe? http://bit.ly/1hMfNwH #CensoredUK
  11. British Library censors Hamlet as “too violent” http://bbc.in/1e4QMfQ #CensoredUK