Comment: Three bad ideas about sex and the internet

By Jane Fae

Is David Cameron a complete fool – an ignoramus of the highest degree when it comes to online technology – or a master manipulator, using justifiable fear of child abuse to stir up some quite ridiculous notions around controlling the internet as a whole?

This last week, we have been treated to three ideas I'd much rather I hadn't heard. Two from Cameron direct, one coasting on the back of his sexualisation campaign.

Let's start with the dubious, which is Cameron's contention this morning that the government has won some great battle with the internet companies in respect of online filtering. He hasn't actually. What he has done is persuade ISPs and other tetchy providers to proclaim they are now providing 'default-on' filters, aka 'Active Choice +'

This is doubly dumb. Or maybe super-cynical. Because if he had actually succeeded in getting companies to set up their offerings so that they all came with filters on and you had to switch them off, the industry consensus is that while you'd stop some proportion of the technically illiterate from accessing porn, that would include few children – and it would also add massive impetus to the growing stampede towards the 'Darknet' – a place quite beyond the ability of the authorities, at present, to police effectively.

(And before you berate me for saying I'm arguing for lawlessness, because people break the law anyway, no: I'm arguing, as with arming the police, that there is a good pragmatic argument for not doing so. That the criminal response is to escalate, and to arm back. As firearms, so the internet. Every barrier put in place has led, to date, to an equal and increasingly sophisticated workaround, leaving the public less – not more protected.)

The point is, Cameron has NOT actually imposed 'default on'. Read the small print: what he has done is persuade the tech providers to pretend that the status quo is now 'default on'.  Whether this means he will come back in a year and ask for the real thing is anyone's guess.

Next up is the bad. At the weekend, just before a week in which he said he had just one important thing to say about the internet, he muddied the waters. Cameron did not call on Google and other search engine operators to block links to child abuse sites. This is already pretty effectively managed in the UK through the auspices of the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF).

Instead he asked them to block certain search strings. Presumably on the theory that your average child abuser is stupid enough to type 'I'm a child abuser, send me smut' into their search engine. It is unclear what Cameron was seeking to achieve. As ideas go it is a stupid one – up their with the cunningest of Baldrick's cunning plans. It adds next to nothing to protection that is not already provided by the IWF block list. It will be circumvented in a trice by those in the know. And, if drawn too widely, will block legitimate research in English literature (no more Lolita!) as well as research into child abuse itself.

It's either not thought through at all or, worse, it is Cameron deliberately, manipulatively, prefacing his ONE IMPORTANT STATEMENT of the week – which is about how to prevent children accessing legitimate adult porn – with headlines about child abuse.  Does he not get the difference?  Or is he deliberately seeking to confuse a public already much confused by this issue?

Last of all, this has been the week of the downright ugly. ATVOD – the Authority for Television On Demand – has picked up and dusted down an idea rejected by government a decade ago as unworkable. Except in this era of moral panic, it is possible that they might get away with it. At least until the first court challenge, when one of our banks will suddenly find itself on the end of a very expensive writ and needing to backtrack very quickly indeed.

The idea? Well, again, it's about policing not criminal material, not abuse material, but what is likely to be legitimate adult stuff. Some of this – much of this – they maintain would be obscene if distributed to a child. Particularly the material arriving from overseas.

Now they want banks to sit as judge and jury on the case and bar individuals from using debit cards to subscribe to overseas porn. The logic is clear, after a fashion.  It is an offence to (knowingly) publish or distribute obscene material.  The legal definition of obscenity varies according to audience – but, clearly, there are things one may publish to adults that one should not publish to children – and where such publication would constitute obscenity.

By restricting subscription to credit card only, one ensures, in theory, that the viewer will be over 18.

So where's the problem? It is, I would suggest, in the blanket nature of the restriction – that and the fact that banks, whose ability to fine-tune laws in other circumstances such as identity and personal security have often been severely lacking, are now being encouraged to impose what is effectively prior restraint on online content.

Because this is not intrinsically unlawful material. It is material that MIGHT be found unlawful in a court of law IF it is downloaded and IF it is viewed by a child.

I wonder if we are not about to see a rerun of the Coregate case in which an EU court ruled that the UK government was NOT allowed to take measures to block the import of sex toys (including love dolls) on grounds that such items were already available – and manufactured! – in the UK.

More seriously, this is another of those ideas that sounds attractive but which introduces a very nasty principle indeed into UK censorship: to wit, that what we may see or read will be subject to the censorship of bankers. And if they get away with this, one wonders what further unsuitable items they will be encouraged to block.

It has been a week for people suggesting stupid things. I suspect we will be hearing many more stupidities over the summer.

Jane Fae is joint national convenor for Consenting Adult Action Network (CAAN) and an ally and supporter of the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF). You can read more of her writing here and follow her on Twitter here.

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