On Friday 21st September, I took part in (and comfortably won) a debate about sex robots at Exeter University. You can read a transcript of my opening speech here.
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.
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.
As the May election approaches, we should all be considering our individual priorities, and selecting an appropriate party and candidate to vote for. So for me (as you might expect) the erosion of civil liberties is far and away the biggest issue we face at this election, and especially those issues around sexual freedom and free expression.
Which parties are the strongest in these areas? Well to begin with, we can ignore the two largest: both Labour and the Tories have appalling records in these areas, climbing over each other to censor online expression and then insisting that the other side isn’t being tough enough on terrorists/protecting children/[insert your favourite threat to humanity].
UKIP’s libertarian noises have been a clever tactic to attract those who are sick of the politically-correct authoritarianism of the puritan left. But there can be nothing pro-liberty about UKIP in practise: their support comes overwhelmingly from older, socially conservative voters, who would be outraged by a loosening of policy on sex or drugs. UKIP has no mandate for expanding civil liberties, but their anti-immigration policies would require a large investment in the security state. More police with more powers? No thanks.
Putting aside the tiny parties (the Pirates have already featured here), there are two choices remaining: the Greens or the Lib Dems. Many of my sex-positive friends are enthusiastic supporters of the Greens, who are projected as a pro-liberty, left-wing alternative. I have doubts whether the Greens are either especially libertine or left (that discussion can continue elsewhere!) But where do they stand on sex? I was sent a link today to a statement of policy which has left me just as uncertain as before.
On Sexual Freedom
The Green Party believes that the law should not seek to regulate consensual sexual activities between adults where these do not affect others…
– This is a bland statement, rendered of little value by the “where these do not affect others” part, which is a get-out-of-jail-free card. Do the existence of strip clubs “affect others”? Anti-sex campaigners think so, and have long made (discredited) arguments that strip clubs cause an increase in sexual violence. Do lads’ mags or Page 3 affect others? Pro-censorship campaigners say these “objectify women” and make supermarkets and newsagents uncomfortable places for some women to visit. Anti-gay rights campaigners have long considered that the rights of gay people have wider, detrimental (but hard-to-quantify) effects on society. Basically, any sex act that doesn’t happen between two people in private might be said to “affect others”.
The statement continues:
... restrictions and censorship of sexually explicit material should be ended, except for those aimed at protecting children. The following are direct quotes from our official policy.
RR550 … Adults should be free to do as they wish with their own bodies, and to practice whatever form of sexual activity they wish by themselves or with each other by mutual consent. This includes the freedom not only to engage in such sexual acts, but also to be photographed or filmed doing so, to make such images available to other adults with their consent, and to be able to view such images. That someone might receive payment for any of these activities should not affect this freedom.
– This is a much stronger statement, but heavily undermined by the caveat “except for those aimed at protecting children” (my highlight above). Most UK censorship of sexual expression exists under the “protecting children” caveat. This includes the total ban on hardcore porn on TV – even at 3am, even PIN-protected – because (according to Ofcom) children might know the PIN and have access to a TV at 3am. The filters on home broadband, public WiFi and mobile Internet connections exist to “protect children”, but in practise block a lot of valuable content to both children and adults. ATVOD’s harassment of UK-based adult websites is done under the seemingly false pretext of child protection.
The statement continues:
RR554 Therefore, all aspects of sex work involving consenting adults should be decriminalised. Restrictions and censorship of sexually explicit material should be ended, except for those which are aimed at protecting children. Workers in the sex industry should enjoy the same rights as other workers such as the right to join unions (SeeWR410), the right to choose whether to work co-operatively with others etc. Decriminalisation would also help facilitate the collection of taxes due from those involved in sex work. Legal discrimination against sex workers should be ended (for example, in child custody cases, where evidence of sex work is often taken to mean that a person is an unfit parent).http://policy.greenparty.org.uk/rr.html#RR555
This is a strong, positive statement. It continues…
At the time that the 2008 bill was passed we did not have a Green MP in Parliament so did not have a vote. However our policy towards all forms of sex work is a liberal one advocating decriminalisation with protections against exploitation, abuse and trafficking.
And here’s the BIG problem with the Greens. They have a great sex work policy, and they now have one MP, Caroline Lucas. But Lucas is a vociferous opponent of Green policy on sex work, as well as a leading supporter of the censorious No More Page 3 campaign. Which way would she vote on these issues? We have no idea.
Note also the inclusion of the T-word… “trafficking” here. The blurring of lines between sex work and trafficking is based on the largely mythical idea of “sex trafficking”, which is used to attack the legitimacy of sex work. Not good.
We will try to carry more party-based coverage in the run-up to the election. If party supporters and representatives would like to provide us information on their policies related to these subjects, or write a post for this blog, please contact us.
An election year comment from Loz Kaye, Leader of Pirate Party UK
For some time now, a nasty puritan streak has been growing in British public life, fed by prejudices both from the left and right. I don’t need to go through each instance: just search back through the history of this blog. Week after week we have seen moral outrage after outrage, crackdown after crackdown.
The absurdity of the AVMS video on demand regulations, or anti-facesitting laws if you prefer, seemed to sum up the sense of panic and how it is infringing peoples’ freedoms. At the heart of sexuality and how we use our bodies has to be consent. It is preposterous to outlaw images of an act that you can consent to. Worse still, in my view that undermines the very concept of consent itself, turning it in to something which is arbitrarily given and withheld by others, not yourself.
That is inherently political and no wonder that the following demonstration was at Westminster, however much MPs looked the other way.
This new puritanism is indeed politically motivated. The pressure on Internet Service Providers to move to default web filtering came directly from Cameron and the likes of Claire Perry pandering to tabloid scare headlines. What we learnt in 2014 was that, as so many of us warned, this led to censorship, including websites there to help victims of abuse or to support LGBT people.
The focus for so much of the moral panic has been the perceived “wild west” of the Internet. We in the Pirate Party have right from our outset opposed the use of web blocking as a state means of personal control.
Web censorship is not a tool for sexual health promotion. State censorship is not a tool for creating equality. Curtailing freedom of expression is not a tool for supporting victims of crime.
If 2014 saw us on the back foot, 2015 is the year to set the agenda. These are the key positive aims as I see it:
Change the direction of the Department of Culture Media and Sport pressure and work to remove default web filtering.
Work with advertising standards to make sure ISPs don’t misrepresent filters as foolproof parenting tools.
Stop the use of web filtering and blocking as a pretended social policy tool.
Reverse the ATVOD censorship moves.
DCMS should launch a review into the role of OFCOM and ATVOD in controlling freedom of expression.
Disband the “copyright cops” PIPCU to give programmes working with victims of abuse a £2 million boost over 3 years.
Embed removing of stigma about discussing sexuality frankly as a vital part of public health strategy.
I’m sure you can think of plenty more, let me know what they are and I’ll be happy to work for them.
The reason that politics has drifted so far in an authoritarian direction, particularly when it comes to sexual freedom, is that most politicians see it at best as a peripheral issue, at worst as a career ruining one, not to be touched with a barge pole. Of course ensuring the safety of sex workers, the well-being of LGBT people or removing stigma about discussing sexual health is not marginal, it’s literally a matter of life and death.
It is our job in 2015 to assert this not a peripheral issue, to destroy the myth that liking particular types of images means that you are unconcerned with the welfare of women or young people, and to support candidates who do have the guts to stand up.
At the risk of angering ATVOD, I would suggest that you can be a bit forceful in 2015. As it’s a general election year, it’s your opportunity to tell MPs and candidates what to do.
It’s very simple. For the next few months tell candidates that you expect them to actively support sexual freedom of expression with the kind of policies that I outlined, or you won’t vote for them.
Let them know that you will tell as many other people as you can to join you in finding a pro-freedom candidate. And stick to that, despite all the scaremongering about wasted votes or two horse races you’ll hear. Don’t let your MP get away with claiming this is not something that concerns their constituents after May 7th.
I suspect that most people reading this blog will not be afraid to try something new. It may be that you should consider doing that in May.