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Could Porn Be Censored in America?

The UK, Saudi Arabia, Iran and China restrict online porn. Is the U.S. next?
 
 
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On July 22, British Prime Minster David Cameron announced a plan by which, at year-end 2014, all UK Internet users would be required to formally register—“opt-in”—for access to porn sites on the web. Those who fail would be blocked from viewing such sites.  His first step is to have Internet users install special programming filters to block access to such sites. Further, public venues like libraries, offices and cafes and nonregistered (read underage) users will be blocked from accessing porn sites.

"By the end of this year, when someone sets up a new broadband account the settings to install family-friendly filters will be automatically selected,” London’s Daily Mail reported Cameron announcing. "If you just click 'next' or 'enter', then the filters are automatically on. … Once those filters are installed, it should not be the case that technically literate children can just flick the filters off at the click of a mouse without anyone knowing.” (In the UK, like the U.S., most schools, libraries and businesses employ filters to block porn and other undesired content.)

Cameron insists the new opt-in plan is designed to protect children from the evils of pornography, pedophilia and sex trafficking. He announced the plan unilaterally, without a joint press conference with the ISPs and other Internet players. He threw down the gauntlet:  "I have a very clear message for Google, Bing, Yahoo and the rest. You have a duty to act on this—it is a moral duty. If there are technical obstacles to acting on [search engines], don't just stand by and say nothing can be done; use your great brains to help overcome them.”

The government’s Child Exploitation and Online Protection Center (CEOP) will establish a new blacklist of "abhorrent" Internet search terms that will ostensibly block pedophiles from searching child-related sites. It will have the power to examine all sites, including secretive file-sharing networks. As the Guardian reports, “all police forces will work with a single secure database of illegal images of children to help ‘close the net on paedophiles.'"

Cameron’s plan is the latest in a series of campaigns waged in liberal Western countries from Scandinavia to Australia to either completely block or limit access to an apparently ever-growing universe of porn sites. Why this effort now? How has it fared? And should we soon expect a comparable campaign in the U.S.?

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Cameron is targeting for government regulation—censorship—of what he calls "extreme pornography," especially on the web. "There are certain types of pornography that can only be described as 'extreme' … that is violent, and that depicts simulated rape,” he says.  “These images normalize sexual violence against women—and they are quite simply poisonous to the young people who see them." 

It is currently illegal to publish and to possess such pornography in Scotland, but not in England and Wales. "Put simply—what you can't get in a shop, you will no longer be able to get online," he told his fellow Brits.

Cameron’s anti-porn announcement culminates a nearly decade-long campaign by anti-porn groups to restrict what they see as media harmful to children and women. Groups like MediaWatch-UKand Safer Media spearheaded this effort. In the wake of Cameron’s announcement, many in the UK raised concerns about both the efficacy and the effectiveness of his plan. Critics point out that filtering words like “breast” and “penis” could block sites about sexual health, sex-ed and clothing and/or novelties.  Others note that the attempt to block simulated porn rape scenes could lead to the blocking of movies like The Accused, which features a rape scene with Jody Foster. Many are concerned that the experience of GigaOM, a respected business-tech site, will be repeated: Orange, a UK ISP owned by France Telecom, blocked it in error.

Some reminded people that the major web companies like Google, Microsoft’s Bing, Facebook and Tumblr have adopted “zero tolerance” policies restricting child sexual imagery and that these companies work with CEOP’s existing blacklist. Even the Economist pointed outthat some small towns in the UK, like Scunthorpe, in Lincolnshire, could be blocked, as “scunt” is slang for vagina. The BBC noted that the filtering program Cameron wants the Brits to adopt, called Homesafe, is supplied by Huawei, a Chinese company; the UK’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) raised serious concerns about the company’s practices. Some even see Cameron’s anti-porn campaign as a cynical political move aimed at wooing women voters. He has been accused of being a hypocrite for railing against online porn but refusing to condemn Murdoch-owned Sun’s page 3 depictions of half-naked women. 

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The UK is not the only country attempting to ban online porn. A similar effort is underway in Europe. The Nordic Council is moving to ban websites considered "anti-women" and anti-porn feminists and Christian conservatives are active in Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. Denmark established a web blacklist, and in 2008, WikiLeaks published it; it was riddled with errors, listing many non-porn sites.

Over the last few years, Iceland undertook a wide-ranging campaign to regulate the sex industry. The distribution and selling of pornography has been officially illegal since 1869. Nevertheless, Playboy and Penthouse are available at bookstores, sex shops offer more hardcore materials and adult channels are on digital TV services. In 2009, Iceland introduced fines and prison terms for men who patronize prostitutes (the sex workers are not subject to the penalties as they are considered victims). In 2010, Iceland outlawed strip clubs. According to the Economist, legislators are finalizing how the porn ban could be enforced. They are considering two options: one would make it illegal to pay for porn with an Icelandic credit card; the other would be the adoption of a filter to block blacklisted sites and words.

Opposition to the further regulation of online content in Iceland is being led by Birgitta Jónsdóttir, an MP, an online activist associated with WikiLeaks and chair of the International Modern Media Institute in Reykjavik. She has rallied considerable support both in Iceland and throughout Europe opposing the ban as incompatible with a free society.

Norway represents a unique nation in the anti-porn wars. A recent study by EU Kids Online, based at the London School of Economics and Political Science and funded by the EC’s Safer Internet Program, EUkids, found that 46 percent of Norwegian children viewed pornography in general and 34 percent watch pornographic content online. In comparison, 23 percent of young people in Europe viewed pornography in general and 14 percent viewed it on the Internet.

In Norway, it is legal to show uncensored sex between adults in print but not on cable TV. Nevertheless, commercial sex was banned in 2009. Efforts are now underway to ban porn on the Internet.

In March, the European Union parliament began considering regulations that would ban pornography across all media, including the web. Kartika Liotard, a Dutch feminist and leftist, introduced the proposed legislation. It seeks to establish a European-wide regulatory agency with "a mandate to impose effective sanctions on companies and individuals promoting the sexualization of girls."

Meanwhile, in Austrialia, the government introduced a mandatory filtering program in May 2008 as part of a $125.8 million “Cybersafety Plan." A pilot program was launched in 2009 and met with fierce resistance from the online community. In late 2012, the Australian government formally abandoned plans to impose porn filtering. Instead of imposing the burden of self-censorship on the end-user, ISPs like Telstra, Optus and iPrimus agreed to voluntarily block sites listed by the Australian Communications and Media Authority, thus policing their sites for child abuse materials. According to Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, "Australia's largest ISPs have been issued notices requiring them to block these illegal sites in accordance with their obligations under the Telecommunications Act 1997."

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Social reformers have long fought against the alleged threats posed by obscene content, whether in paintings, books, live performance, photographs, records, movies or videos. In the 1980s, feminists like Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon took up the campaign against pornography and gained significant influence. Their anti-porn legislation was adopted in Indianapolis and proposed in Cambridge, Los Angeles and Minneapolis. Dworkin testified before the 1986 Attorney General's Commission on Pornography (aka the Meese Commission), supporting its campaign to censor sexually explicit materials. (Meese’s effort to stop the sale of Playboy magazine was ultimately rejected by a federal court.)

The Commission argued that a link existed between pornography and violence. It extended the Supreme Court’s 1973 Miller v. California decision to include real or imaginary harm to children and women. Under Miller, obscene or sexually explicit materials could be regulated if (i) they produced sexual arousal in the viewer; (ii) were offensive based on “contemporary community standards” and (iii) taken as a whole lacked artistic, scholarly or scientific value. In an earlier, 1968 decision, Ginsberg v. New York, the Court introduced the notion of “harm-to-minor” with regard to obscene materials. The Commission extended the notion of pornography’s harm-to-minors to a violation of women's civil rights. 

“To a number of us," the commission's majority report said, "the most important harms must be seen in moral terms. ... [F]or children to be taught by these materials that sex is public, that sex is commercial, and that sex can be divorced from any degree of affection, love, commitment, or marriage is for us the wrong message at the wrong time.” 

In 1986, the same year the Meese report came out, the Surgeon General's Workshop on Pornography and Public Health found no scientific basis to believe that minors are adversely affected by pornography; this is the same finding the 1970 Nixon pornography commission reached.

Over the last decade-plus, the U.S. has been witness to an on-again, off-again battle over Internet porn filtering. In 1996, Congress passed the Communications Decency Act (CDA), part of the Telecommunications Act. It was designed to block Internet transmission of sexually explicit materials to minors under 18 years. It prohibited materials "that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards, sexual or excretory activities or organs." A year later, in Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union, the Court ruled the CDA unconstitutional.

In 2000, Congress passed the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA). It required public libraries that receive federal funds to install computer-based filters blocking access to Internet pornography. Librarians and others challenged the act, but in 2003, the Supreme Court ruled it did not violate First Amendment rights. It’s the filtering law of the land.

Cameron’s promotion of anti-porn legislation and the actions by other European countries will likely have little ramification in the U.S. Congress. The conservative Daily Caller noted, “Morality in Media, which, in response to Cameron’s announcement, released a statement expressing their support for private internet filters, failed to address whether they would support federal intervention on the matter.” 

Porn seems like an easy target when compared to the deeper, more institutional problems women and children face. How are we to deal with the widespread domestic violence that wracks families everywhere and is compounded by the never-ending recession, the new economic normal? How are we to end sex trafficking? And what about all those girls and women who experience sexual violence, including date rape, at the hands of a partner?

Porn invokes people’s worst sexual fears/fantasies. Yet, it’s a fight almost impossible to win. Anti-porn activists are unsettled by the enormous increase and easily availability of porn (especially “hard-core or “gonzo” porn). They claim such porn harms women and children, contributing directly to gender inequality, violence against women and children and sex trafficking. This assertion is much debated. It's not been made clear how restricting porn will put a stop to the actions that harm all too many women and girls in America.

David Rosen is regular contributor to AlterNet, Brooklyn Rail, Filmmaker and IndieWire. His website is DavidRosenWrites.com. He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net.

 

 
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