The UK is in talks for a national filter that would block pornography. Not child sex abuse (nobody sane is arguing over whether that should be accessible), but legal, adult pornography. The idea is to protect the UK’s children, and since adults have the choice of getting out of the filter, then there’s nothing wrong with it, right?
I beg to differ. Yesterday, the Guardian had a piece that asked “Blocking Internet porn…that’s censorship, isn’t it?” As Larry Flynt (Hustler) has argued many times, yes, it is. The way many of us think, first they’ll come for the porn, then they’ll come for the topless magazines, and then, what’s next?
Personally, I’m fairly agnostic about pornography. I certainly wouldn’t miss it, and if I did, I know plenty of ways to get around Internet filters (which is another point: if you block porn, are you going to block circumvention tools too?). So for me, this isn’t about pornography, but rather, about the systems in place to block it. I don’t trust them. Nor do I have any reason to.
In the UK, the body responsible for creating the country’s blacklists is the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF). An extragovernmental body, the IWF was founded in 1996 by the Internet community (largely extragovernmental itself) for the purpose of monitoring and reporting “child sexual abuse content” on the Internet. Though the organization still carries out regular reporting on such content, their mission has been expanded to include “racist and criminally obscene” material. And while child abuse content is filtered (as it is often hosted outside the UK’s jurisdiction and thus cannot be taken down by their government), “criminally obscene adult content” and content containing “incitement to racial hatred” hosted in the UK are most often taken down by law enforcement, rather than filtered.
In 2009, a controversial decision by the IWF to filter the Wikipedia page of a 1977 Scorpions album because the album cover depicted a nude minor resulted in backlash against the organization. As a result, the organization retracted its ban on the Wikipedia page, but it was too late…trust was already lost.
Though filtering one page on Wikipedia might not seem like a big deal, it’s indicative of a serious problem: You’ve got a nongovernmental body with little or no government oversight deciding what’s best for us. If this is reminiscent to my American readers, it should be: the IWF is very much like our own MPAA, that ominous body that decides our movie ratings. Now, movie ratings may not seem important either, but consider this: The upcoming film Blue Valentine was recently given an NC-17 rating (later downgraded to an R) for depicting cunnilingus. Films that depict fellatio, on the other hand, are regularly given an R rating, while by contrast realistic violence can get anything from a PG-13 to an R. Blue Valentine‘s star, Ryan Gosling, called the decision “misogynistic by nature,” stating that films with violence, rape, and torture are regularly given R ratings (or shown on prime time television), while a loving relationship that includes oral sex is given the most extreme of ratings, often a death sentence for a box office film.
If all of this seems irrelevant, it’s not. The MPAA is a perfect comparison to the IWF: two nongovernmental bodies comprised of regular (often untrained, often uneducated) people making decisions for the rest of us. You should be very uncomfortable with this, whether you care about porn or not.