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'Blocking Extreme Porn' Is A Gateway To Internet Censorship

23/11/2016 16:53
Bolkins via Getty Images

The government's announcement last week - that it intends to empower a media regulator to block "non-compliant" porn sites - has surprised many people, but has been a long time coming. Having watched the process over a number of years, and documented it in my recent book Porn Panic!, for me the measure is a sad vindication of the sorry state of free expression today.

The regulations that banned "extreme" porn sites in the UK actually came into law two years ago, and led to London's magnificent face-sitting protest. However, the most extreme thing wasn't the porn, but the definition of "extreme" as used by the regulators. The legal limits for British porn are defined by the British Board of Film Censorship (BBFC), a private business with government-mandated powers. Their prurient R18 standard draws far tighter lines for sexual content than in most of Europe or the United States. Among other things, it bans depictions of female ejaculation. It also considers many widely practised sex acts to be too dangerous to depict. These include face-sitting, as well as any other act that might conceivably suffocate or otherwise kill someone (though to date, there are no known face-sitting deaths). Also banned are fisting, and any form of spanking, whipping or other fetish act that leaves marks.

In fact, these rules have long been applied by the BBFC to DVDs. The only reason nobody has noticed in recent years is that the Internet has long provided us with a huge diversity of sexual imagery and video and - of course - the Internet is global. Ban the publication of porn in the UK, and it simply moves overseas. The blocking announcement is the culmination of many years of manoeuvring by various interests that had seen their powers eroded by Internet. This quiet campaign has united the Tory right, religious and radical feminist campaigners with the vested interests of the BBFC, Ofcom and other sections of the British censorship state.

And so their moment has come. If these plans come to pass, the BBFC will be granted the power to order Internet providers to block sites that don't conform to its bizarre standards. However, it should be noted that these standards are based on moral judgement rather than actual evidence of harm. They are based on the ancient idea that content might "deprave and corrupt" viewers. This is same test under which the book Lady Chatterley's Lover was (unsuccessfully) prosecuted for obscenity in 1960.

In fact, this law will block far more than just "extreme" porn. It will also block any sexual or erotic material (even simple nudity) on sites that don't first verify the ages of their visitors. And since this is a very expensive thing to do, and effectively impossible for many small sites to achieve, the law will allow the BBFC to block literally millions of sites. Although only sexual material is covered in this phase of the Bill, regulators have already muttered about other threats to society. The BBFC already censors far more than pornography. For example, it will cut DVD works that "promote the misuse of drugs" or "actively promote illegal behaviour".

As I outline in Porn Panic! - this isn't much about porn at all. This announcement heralds something far more historically important than the blocking of a load of Internet smut. It represents the first moment in history that a democratic country creates an official Internet censor with this level of power. So far, this has been the realm of states like China, Iran and Ethiopia. It creates a dangerous precedent for free speech: we will no longer hold the moral high ground on the international stage, or be able to encourage dictators to reduce censorship. In this already dangerous political era, the ripples created by this action could spread far.

Jerry Barnett is the founder of the Sex & Censorship campaign, and author of Porn Panic!

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