On Monday, British Prime Minster David Cameron announced that internet service providers in the U.K. would be required to filter out online porn as part of several new rules to come into effect by the end of the year. Adults will still have the ability to opt in to view porn, but filtering will be the “unavoidable choice” default that ISPs will need to provide. The same day, Twitter announced that it would be implementing a tagging system to fight porn, apparently at the British government’s urging.
Meanwhile, the chairman of the Canadian Association of Internet Providers (CAIP), Tom Copeland, revealed that an opt-in idea like Britain’s had been discussed in Canada off and on for several years. On Tuesday, Conservative MP for Kildonan-St. Paul, Joy Smith, expressed a wish to implement the initiative in Canada, calling it a “common sense approach” to protect kids. She has promised to flag this for Prime Minister Stephen Harper to address when Parliament resumes.
The initial rationalization being given is that as an “opt-in” policy, nothing is actually being “censored.” It sounds like it’s just as easy as unchecking a box, to opt back in. Easy, right?
Unfortunately, reality doesn’t work that way, and it would be impossible for an opt-in scheme to become anything other than a softer kind of censorship.
“This Website is Unavailable”
The biggest concern being raised so far is the inaccuracy of filters, and their tendency to affect many things that are not actually porn. Cameron has already had to concede that the filters required in the U.K. could end up blocking sexual health, sex-ed and clothing and / or novelty stores. There’s really no guarantee that discussions about womens’ reproductive health, sex workers’ rights, transsexuality and more would escape the filter, and remain available to the general public, rather than just those who opt to view porn.
The implementation would almost certainly target consensual BDSM (an acronym for bondage & discipline / dominance & submission / sadomasochism), given that the filter announcement was accompanied by a declaration that it would be illegal to produce or possess anything that could be considered “violent” or that simulated rape — something that drew fire from former MP Louise Mensch, who commented on Twitter: “It is not for our government to police consensual simulation, between adults, of one of women’s most common fantasies.” [The U.K. already has an unusual and related legal precedent in which the House of Lords ruled that a person could not legally consent to violence (aside from things like surgery), although subsequent rulings have left that legal landscape a bit unclear.]
Tumblr illustrated the problem with filters when it drew some complaints over the weekend for flagging and tagging blogs as “NSFW (not safe for work),” or “Adult,” applying filters, and preventing tagged blogs from showing up in searches. Terms like “gay,” “lesbian,” “bisexual,” “transgender” and more were affected — words that could just as easily call up a porn niche as summon a wealth of social discussion.
“Although Tumblr’s settings page allows users to opt out of hiding NSFW posts in searches, it seems blogs that have been labeled NSFW (with or without their consent) have not been appearing in searches at all, basically blocking them from gaining new followers through anything but reblogs and word-of-mouth. In addition, many noticed that a whole host of vaguely “adult” tags, including those listed above, are now unsearchable on some mobile apps, including Tumblr for iPhone.”
The effect of targeted tags being dropped from search engines and functions cannot be understated — and could easily become a naturally organic consequence, as search engines and algorithms adapt to the “new normal.” Soft censorship. Say goodbye to your favourite LGBT blog.
If that last comment sounds melodramatic, then note that Tim Horton’s also had to apologize for blocking the gay and lesbian news website Xtra from WiFi users (also over an apparently busy weekend), after LGBT people and allies began lobbying to boycott the coffee chain. Once filters are a factor, this is hardly an unusual occurrence.
And as discussions become inadvertently filtered, they become less accessible and less traveled… factors that almost inevitably drive their ranking down on complex search algorithms like those used by Google.
Filters have improved somewhat since the legendary problem reported by Dick Cheney’s staff, when the installation of new filters targeting offensive words (like “dick”) prevented them from accessing the then-Senator’s own website. Even so, there are endless examples of filters overreaching and doing what they were never intended to do — sometimes with hilarious results. Even still, one occasionally runs across a phenomenon known as “The Clbuttic Mistake” — a phenomenon of mangled text that results when auto-format filters replace words considered rude or offensive with milder counterparts, without accounting for context. In these sorts of situations, “classic” becomes “clbuttic” (18,700 instances on Google), “constitution” becomes “consbreastution” (3,240 instances), “assassination” becomes “buttbuttination” (2,040 instances), and more. While the filters being sought by the British PM perform differently — preventing the display of a page, rather than changing its text — their programming will inevitably be just as arbitrary.
Good luck finding your town’s website if you live in Dildo, NL.
It gets even more difficult when it comes to trying to filter images, which don’t of themselves have keywords other than the descriptions assigned to them. The broadest filters could make significant swaths of classic art inaccessible, while still letting actual porn through. As noted at The Cracked Crystal Ball II:
“Let us assume that we have a computer system available to us which can identify nudity in images. How do we differentiate between the nudity of a great piece of classical artwork and a playboy centerfold type of picture? Is there in fact a difference? What a commercial sites that sell sex toys? Are they to be deemed “pornographic”?
“Or, come to that, how does one differentiate between a novel with a sex scene and a pornographic story? Where does the line exist between “legitimate” art (as the anti-pornographers see it) and porn lie? … and is there any meaningful way to differentiate that a blocking system could identify?”
The arbitrariness of keywords is not the only thing likely to make a filter be applied in an overly broad way. Obscenity is a perpetually subjective concept, always open to interpretation by individuals. This often results in the “just in case” mentality, where businesses and individuals apply the rule in an overly broad way, to avoid any possible complaints or legal liabilities.
A Homosexual Propaganda Law for the Internets
And indeed, to many social conservatives, LGBT news sites are considered pornography, or at the very least as potential gateways to pornography. Linda Harvey of Mission America illustrated this vividly last May on her talk show at WRFD radio, in Columbus, Ohio:
“Homosexual-themed pornography is extremely accessible to young people if they ever visit any websites covering the gay agenda as news. For instance, if your child was during a report on same-sex marriage just researching the political issue and visiting sites that are sympathetic to the social and political goals of the homosexual movement may quickly bring them in touch with explicit images because many of the homosexual news blogs have soft-porn gay dating sites or worse as ads. So what is the reaction of your son or daughter to such graphic images?
“If they feel a curiosity it may start a process of wondering if they could be homosexual. This is not true of course but the really tragic thing is they are not likely to share this question with you the parent, it just seems too personal. If they follow up and visit these sites some will experience sexual feelings and mistake these for the pervasive fiction of some inborn gay identity. After all, isn’t this the message that kids get everywhere that ‘some of you are destined for homosexuality and there is nothing you can do about it so just go with it and be proud’?”
Protecting children from witnessing homosexual love and involuntarily becoming gay as a consequence was the public rationale used by Russia when it enacted its law banning “homosexual propaganda.” But the law affects any public statement, action, publication or gesture that can be seen as LGBT-positive, including Pride parades and events, affirming publications and support groups, and far more. On Monday, four Dutch tourists were the first foreigners arrested under the ban, when they interviewed passers-by about their views on the ban for a documentary on human rights. Days ago, Russia also went a step further by making it illegal to “offend the feelings of religious believers.” Self-described “human rights consultant”and American evangelical Scott Lively has on multiple occasions taken credit for the ban in Russia, encouraging Hungarian legislators to:
“criminalize the public advocacy of homosexuality. My philosophy is to leave homosexuals alone if they keep their lifestyle private, and not to force them into therapy if they don’t want it. However, homosexuality is destructive to individuals and to society and it should never publicly promoted. The easiest way to discourage “gay pride” parades and other homosexual advocacy is to make such activity illegal in the interest of public health and morality…”
[Lively is one of the evangelists who inspired Uganda's "Anti-Homosexuality Bill."]
In the highly polarized and politically charged atmosphere of the past few years, it’s no secret that there are interest groups with a thirst to censor anything favourable to their ideological opponents. The will certainly exists.
Much of the censorship proposed lately is rationalized in the name of protecting children, but the list of things that people assert that children should be protected from can quickly balloon into a monster. Last April, I wrote a three-part series (1, 2, 3) on how social conservatives even targeted the Day of Silence (a day in which LGBT students and allies refuse to speak, as a way of protesting the silencing effect of anti-gay and transphobic bullying and harassment) as offensive:
“Acceptance of others has been conflated with “encouraging experimentation,” and lately also equated to corruption of children and “mental molestation.” To many, it’s all inseparable. In this mindset (coupled with heads-as-empty-vessels theory), even silent solidarity with LGBT kids corrupts children sexually and indoctrinates them into homosexuality.”
When CAIP’s Tom Copeland spoke to the Canadian Press, he noted:
“The discussion has gone on forever and a day, mostly it starts around child pornography and what can be done to combat it and whether or not Internet service providers can play a role, or should play a role,” Copeland said.
“And then every once in a while somebody decides, ‘Well, we need to take this further, it needs to include general pornography sites’ -which aren’t illegal – ‘it needs to include hate sites.’ It needs to include any number of sites that somebody all of a sudden has a burr in their britches about.
“And generally the industry has said we can’t possibly block all of these sites.”
That last point is important. Requiring a block on all porn becomes a burden on ISPs, especially as technology and the means to evade it changes at rapid pace. And in giving ISPs the responsibility of “protecting” people from porn, they may also inherit the legal liabilities. One man recently filed suit against Apple for allowing porn on iPhones, blaming the company for the failure of his marriage and a porn addiction. In an opt-in world, what kind of legal liabilities do ISPs face, if some porn does slip through? And if there is the spectre of legal consequences, doesn’t it incentivize the over-application of filters?
There are, of course, many fears that opt-in policies could lead to censorship of other kinds of content, by being exploited erosively, in the same way that restrictions and regulations have been continually implemented in the U.S. to limit and gradually eliminate womens’ access to abortion, and making moves to do the same with contraception. It’s not inconceivable that an opt-in policy could be instituted and then gradually widened to things that are “controversial” — like sex ed, abortion, sex workers’ rights, environmentalism, transsexuality, atheism, evolution….
Even if that didn’t happen, it’s still the height of laziness to put the burden of parental and personal responsibility on the state.
But then, society has a serious double-standard on issues of personal responsibility. We’ve been increasingly seeing messaging blaming women for rape, blaming the poor for their own poverty, and blaming minorities for racial strife, in the dubious name of “personal responsibility.” And yet when it comes to actual personal responsibility in terms of parenting and individual choice, people cry for the government to establish soft censorship to do the job of instructing kids.
The calls for “parental rights” when it comes to shielding their kids from LGBT-inclusive anti-bullying education prove to be a hypocrisy as well, given that those parental rights are easily punted to the wayside when it comes to subjecting other parents’ kids to squishy fetus dolls in candy bags or grisly aborted fetus posters displayed outside schools or family events, to recruit children in the war on womens’ reproductive rights. It would seem to be that only one kind of parent is supposed to make decisions for everyone else’s children. And in calling for a national porn opt-in requirement, it’s almost a weird kind of “we’ll happily abdicate the responsibility to the state, as long as the state is doing what we want” sentiment.
Meanwhile, MP Smith has already indicated that she sees it as irrelevant if things get pushed into the cybercloset as a consequence of the measure:
“What you have to weigh on this is how can we better protect our children. It’s not going to be perfect. Nothing we do is going to be perfect. But it’s one more step to protecting our children. And what I’ve heard is people say, oh, as an adult it’s embarrassing for me to have to do this. And my answer to that is, unchecking a box can’t be too much of a price to pay when it comes to protecting and nurturing our children. So it’s not about censoring anything, it’s about protecting the children. And we know the harmful impact of pornography on children because research is showing that. And so this is something that Prime Minister Cameron has done that has been really bold and it’s been collaborative and I think we need to have this conversation right here in Canada and take some of these steps.”
We wouldn’t want the kids to sear their eye sockets, after all.
Won’t Somebody Please Think of the Children?
And this is where we get to the point of the debate that few want to discuss: the possibility that sexual curiosity may be a natural part of youth, one that in practice will probably not be thwarted by an opt-in law, anyway.
As the Toronto Star pointed out, David Cameron’s plan conflates child pornography with youth porn consumption. Regardless of what one feels about the latter, it mostly happens when kids wilfully seek to view porn, and they have also often proven to be remarkably able to evade security, anyway. It’s concerning that people are seriously considering changing the fundamental nature of the Internet and seriously squelching the dialogue of some communities, in favour of something that may not achieve its stated goal in the first place, and would be better accomplished by parents monitoring and better educating their kids.
No one can deny that there are some pretty abysmal and misogynistic forms of porn out there, forms we’d obviously rather not be plastered everywhere that kids travel — and that’s why the Internet has organically evolved to mostly limit that sort of thing to spaces where it is deliberately sought out. You typically don’t get porn in Teh Google unless your search terms are keyed to find it. And The Huffington Post isn’t likely to advertise porn, since it’s bad for business and readership retention.
It’s not perfect, certainly, but throwing out very positive resources on sexuality that can be found — like Scarleteen — in the process is an unreasonably nuclear option. It’s not like there’s a lack of (free!) resources already available for parents who want to eliminate any risk of their children burning their eyes.
But it would seem to me that better parenting would be less focused on protecting kids from knowing anything about sexuality, and focused more on keeping good lines of communication open, so that kids are comfortable asking their parents questions while they’re figuring things out.
Either way, given the way some proponents push the idea of soft censorship, it can’t help appear as though some teens have a better handle on sex and sexuality than many adults.
(Crossposted to rabble.ca)