Wednesday, April 08, 2015 

Upon this tidal wave of internet sleaze.

If there's been any real underlying theme of the "short" campaign so far, beyond the obvious dividing lines established by Labour and the Tories, it's in how the smaller parties are still trying to deny they might be involved in anything as puerile as politics.  "I told you they were all the same," insisted the most boring man alive last Thursday (other than myself, natch), in spite of how he makes even hip to be square David Cameron seem positively alternative just by standing alongside him.  The Greens have just released their party political broadcast, depicting the big four as One Dimension and most likely blowing their entire campaign budget in one go, while last night Nicola Sturgeon was insistent she would help Ed Miliband into Downing Street, at the same time as ensuring the break up of the Westminster old boys' network.  Purists might suggest the best way to get Miliband as PM is to vote Labour, but that could be a little too obvious for these times.

You do of course understand.  Politics, like crevice, is a dirty word.  Westminster is even filthier, conjuring up images of snouts in the trough, flipped duck houses, not so old men in grey suits not being in touch with hard-working Brits who revel in their own ignorance, feculence and I'm already losing the will to live just by relaying the nonsense that has become the default setting for so much of our discourse.  What baffles is why, instead of fighting against this attitude, which isn't cynicism because authentic cynicism requires thought and so much of the "they're all the same" bullshit is just sheer laziness, politicians instead do their very best to fuel it.  The first campaign missive from my Labour candidate has arrived, and in the posting she insists she has no intention of becoming a "Westminster politician".  Forgive me if I'm being deliberately obtuse, but if she's elected she doesn't have any choice in the matter, unless she intends to not take up her seat ala Sinn Fein.  Yes, I know what she means; she isn't going to become that sort of politician, as though it's ignoble to want to be more than just a constituency MP, as though you can't be both.

I'd much rather if we're going to snort and shake our heads at the very mention of Westminster we do it for something approaching a decent reason.  Take for instance the mindbogglingly stupid pledge made by the Conservatives at the weekend that hasn't really had the attention it properly deserves.  "TIDE OF INTERNET SLEAZE TO BE HALTED" shrieked the Mail, the headline currently alongside an image of Kate Upton in her underwear.  Yes, after successfully dealing with the entire problem of kids being able to explore the wonders of fisting if they so wish by requiring ISPs to have online filtering turned on by default, the Conservatives now say that kiddiwinks are still having their lives ruined by catching a glimpse of a Japanese bukkake party.  Why, according to a totally legit survey conducted by the NSPCC and ChildLine, a tenth of 12-year-olds are "addicted" to online porn.  They're campaigning against it with, and I'm not making this up, Fight Against Porn Zombies viral videos.  Fapz.  Fapz.  Someone thought that was funny, clever and unlikely to be understood by the people who commissioned it.

All porn sites will then be required to have some sort of age verification system, beyond the you can only enter if you're over 18 yadda yadda warning most paid sites currently have, although the porn tube sites for the most part forgo even that.  This will apply whether or not they're based in the UK, the implication being that if they refuse to take part, as they will, as porn is not the guaranteed revenue generator it once was, those refusing to take part will be blocked.  Again, it's not clear how this will work, the suggestion being that ISPs will be required to block access to the sites in the same way they currently do the torrent and sports live stream sites that have a court order against them.

Why though stop there?  Why just require sites that define themselves as being pornographic to verify the age of their users?  Why shouldn't Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr have the same system in place when the first two serve as the main referrers to such material, while Tumblr is a veritable cornucopia of every fetish known to man, and plenty of others not yet identified by science?  Surely Xbox Live, Steam and Amazon should have a proper system in place to verify that 18-rated games and movies aren't being bought by children using their parents' details, or indeed to prevent the parents from irresponsibly giving in to the demands of little Johnny.  How many of our kids are watching videos on YouTube that are completely unsuitable for them, and shouldn't something be done about that?  Isn't it time the smut masquerading as news served up by the Mail, Sun and Star was put behind a not suitable for human consumption warning in all newsagents?

And so on.  As Gilad Rosner writes, such a system is technically feasible, except it would still be so full of holes as to be completely useless.  Unless the porn tube owners cooperated, and there's not the slightest indication they would, we'd just see the same thing that's happened with the "blocked" torrent sites: the springing up of mirrors that are not blocked.  This in itself wouldn't stop said torrent sites from being another major source of the sleaze polluting the minds of children, nor would it online lockers, let alone how we're also informed most 9-year-olds are playing I'll show you mine if you'll show me yours on Snapchat in any case.  Even if ISPs were required to be more proactive than they have been in blocking the proxies giving access to torrent sites, it still wouldn't stop anyone downloading Tor and getting around the whole shebang that way.  For the umpteenth time in history, what seems to be Conservative policy is denying adults the right to make their own decisions about what they watch on the completely spurious basis of protecting children.  It would be slightly more acceptable if the policy was workable; it isn't.

How lovely it would be then if prospective MPs, rather than feeling the need to make excuses for themselves from the very beginning, instead outlined how they be different from their predecessors.  Instead of sucking up to tabloid newspapers with a commercial interest in going after the full-on sleaze provided by their rivals, they could promise to vote on the basis of what is known to work.  They could make clear it is the responsibility of the parents to monitor what their beloved sprogs are watching online, their responsibility to ensure filters are in place, and most importantly, they are there to talk about something they've seen that may have upset them.  They could also set out the argument that it's the maiden aunts at the Mail and in the Conservative party that are preventing the desperately needed changes to sex education in schools, which is stuck back in the 20th century while the 21st roars by.  Or they could just stick to the party line and keep their heads down.  Which is what most of those currently pledging to not be "Westminster politicians" will almost certainly do once there.

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Monday, February 16, 2015 

Still an aberration, not a pattern.

The weekend's attacks in Copenhagen bear the hallmarks not of a fresh assault by jihadis trained overseas so much as those of copycats.  The distinction is important, regardless of the end result being the murder of two people, with the attacker, unofficially named as Omar El-Hussein, clearly wanting to kill as many as possible at the cafe hosting the free speech event, including Lars Vilks, the Swedish cartoonist responsible for one of the caricatures of Muhammad printed by Jyllands-Posten in 2005.

From what has so far been written about El-Hussein, a 22-year-old born in Denmark with Palestinian heritage, he appears to have been a petty criminal likely to have been radicalised, or perhaps merely preyed upon in prison.  Released just two weeks ago, he doesn't seem to have travelled outside of Europe, nor does he appear to have attempted to contact the media as the Charlie Hebdo attackers and Amédy Coulibaly did.  The Kouachi brothers were calm and resolute in the way they carried out their massacre, whereas El-Hussein seems to have "sprayed and prayed".  There has also so far been no claim of responsibility, nor was there a claim from El-Hussein himself to anyone who might have been listening that he was attacking on behalf of any particular group.

This doesn't of course mean that El-Hussein wasn't by proxy acting for either say, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which has particular reasons for attacking Denmark, or Islamic State, but it would surprise massively if he wasn't first and foremost carrying out deeds suggested by those he developed links with in prison.  That he apparently became known to the Danish intelligence services due to his spell of incarceration is a further indication of this.  It's not an impossibility he was acting of his own volition, perhaps on just the suggestion of carrying out an attack and he improvised, influenced by the attacks in France, but the slight period of time between his release and his actions would seem to rule out his being a true "lone wolf".  All the same, if this was a planned attack, in the sense of targeting Vilks, it wasn't planned to anywhere near the extent the Charlie Hebdo massacre was, nor was it implemented with the same ruthlessness.  The real constant is the targeting after the "main" assault of Jews, the singling out of a visible community purely down to religious and racial hatred, as well as to incite further terror.

Most of the comment has then concentrated on this continued threat to Jewish communities, rather than on freedom of expression once again coming under attack.  Some of this reticence could also, you have to suspect, be due to the release of audio from the cafe, with Inna Shevchenko, a representative of the Femen protest group making a point rendered all the more powerful by what follows.  “It’s about freedom of speech, but. The key word here is 'but’.  Why do we still continue to say but when we...”  Then gunshots ring out.

There were more than a few people saying but just over a month ago, or words to that effect.   Just this weekend Will Self was repeating how in his view satire is meant to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable".  Self doesn't need any lectures on how the likes of Hogarth were equally at home targeting the powerful as they were the drinkers of Gin Lane, just as so many other satirists and writers have turned their pencils and inks against those both worthy and in the view of the Selfs, unworthy of mockery.  My own view of satire has always been the best sort is uncomfortable to everyone, both the target and those viewing it, precisely because as much as satire needs at times to be obvious, wounding to the pompous, it also needs to challenge those who think themselves different.

Another way to do the equivalent of saying but is to bring in false comparisons and other equivocations.  Not since the murder last week of three young students, all Muslims, in North Carolina has there been the slightest piece of evidence produced to suggest they were killed because of their faith, rather than being yet more victims of a violent man with easy access to firearms.  This hasn't stopped those with axes to grind from ignoring the actual people who lived alongside the victims and their killer, who said they were all scared of him and that he complained habitually about his neighbours, especially when his Facebook page was filled with a screed against religion.  You don't however expect the Guardian editorial to draw a link, as much as you do the secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain.  Claiming the North Carolina murders were an attack on freedom is completely absurd, yet such it seems is the continued nervousness of admitting a tiny minority of those calling themselves Muslims are prepared to kill in "defence" of their religion without wringing hands and saying yes, but you know, a lot of people are equally hate-filled.

Just as absurd is Binyamin Netanayhu once again in the wake of the attack on the Copenhagen synagogue doing the equivalent of saying "Israel is so bracing".  I thought for a moment about then adding something about wiping the blood off his hands, but (yes, that word) to so much as include blood and an Israeli leader in the same sentence is to be antisemitic in the view of some.  You could if you so wished calculate the number of Jews killed across Europe in acts of racial hatred over the past few years with the number of Jews killed in attacks in Israel, it's just there is no comparison so there's not much point.  As Keith Kahn-Harris exceptionally puts it, those who would murder Jews do not make distinctions between them, and the calls from Israeli politicians, designed as they are to appeal to a domestic audience with elections in the offing do precisely that, intended to or otherwise.

All the same, it's worth asking exactly what else EU leaders should have done to further protect Jewish citizens, after Rabbi Menachem Margolin said not enough had been.  Two attacks, despite Netanayhu's comments, is still an aberration rather than a pattern.  When you have so many claiming it's only a matter of time before something happens along the same lines in other European capitals, the obvious danger is of self-fulfilling prophecy, of inspiring further copyists, of overreaction and diluting other freedoms taken for granted, more so than we already have that of expression.  Seeing patterns where there isn't one yet is to fall into their trap, just as it is to condemn while saying but. 

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Thursday, January 15, 2015 

Tout est pardonné.

One wonders if prior to the last week quite so many people have previously tried to make their minds up over political cartoons where the punchlines are delivered in a language they don't speak and the topics are often directly related to events in that foreign country.  I don't speak French, my only real knowledge about Charlie Hebdo prior to last Wednesday was it's a satirical weekly that had published caricatures of the prophet Muhammad, and so I laid off reaching a definite conclusion on that basis.

Thankfully, some helpful people have translated the most widely circulated examples of Charlie Hebdo's content, and put them in their proper context.  Accordingly, the cartoon of Boko Haram's pregnant sex slaves demanding welfare, much pointed towards as an example of just how shockingly racist the paper was, is in fact mocking the standard right-wing obsession with immigrants/refugees claiming benefits.  We see alleged comedian Dieudonné, arrested this week over his comments about being "Charlie Coulibably", to understandable consternation over his right to offend not being protected, told where he can stick his quenelle gesture.  And for anyone repeating the claim the paper targeted Islam and Muslims above and beyond other faiths, a front page from 2011 is shown, which advocates flushing the Bible, Qu'ran and Talmud down the toilet, itself a response to a print of the Piss Christ artwork being vandalised in Avignon.

Instead of accept he might have got it wrong this time, lenin/Richard Seymour has instead doubled down.  It doesn't matter that you can detest the way the French state has appropriated the murders, be disgusted at how foreign leaders who care nothing for freedom of speech and have much blood on their hands were at the front of Sunday's march, and be concerned about whether the attacks will see a further ratcheting up of tension and discrimination against Muslims, and still also defend freedom of expression and pledge solidarity with those targeted.  But no, apparently Charlie Hebdo's scrawls were not satire but childish scribblings, and if you find them funny, witty or apposite you too are a child, or a moron.  How could anyone find a cartoon which draws on the "Muhammad was a paedo" school of Muslim-baiting satisfying?

Unless of course that self-same cartoon is again ripping the piss out of those idiots, which is the only conclusion that can be reached by seeing just the translation, let alone any further context.  Yes, you could say "pot kettle black" on that front and criticise the cartoonist for daring to think his work is above that of the "anti-jihadists" who really do just hate Muslims, but aren't we getting just a little bit haughty ourselves here?  Is "high-brow" satire the only satire it's OK to like, which itself is often based around imagery just as much as showing politicians and celebrities up as thoughtless idiots who believed what they wanted to?  Does it really need the Pope to step in and say please don't be beastly about religion as it hurts people's feelers for it become apparent that if freedom of speech means anything it's to say and depict things others don't want to hear or see, regardless of their position in society?

Tout est pardonné regardless.

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Tuesday, January 13, 2015 

Comedy, satire and subjectivity. Oh, and Charlie Hebdo.

Watching Emily Maitlis interview Dapper Laughs, aka Daniel O'Reilly last year in the immediate aftermath of his ITV2 show being cancelled after everyone realised his act was fairly repugnant, I was left incredulous at how O'Reilly refused to defend himself.   Perhaps we should have been tipped off by his wearing of the black turtleneck of regretfulness, but nonetheless.  Maitlis, reasonably enough, clearly felt nothing but utter contempt for Mr Laughs' brand of humour, and so went in for the kill.  His response to Maitlis using his own gags against him was to visibly shrink, mutter the odd apology and then explain he was killing off Herr Laughs with immediate effect.

The obvious retort to Maitlis and everyone else was, you might not like my act, but who are you to say what is and isn't comedy, as you seem to be?  One of the very qualities that make us human is our ability to make a joke out of anything and everything, whether it be murder, rape, the Holocaust, or indeed toasters.  Criticising stand-ups is very different to saying an entire subject cannot be joked about; just as it ought to have been apparent Senor Laughs' shtick wasn't worthy of a TV series on quality grounds, that's quite separate to demanding his tour be pulled also.

Most of us will have experienced being the only person in a group not laughing at some grand cultural soiree we've attended.  It happened to me when I by chance saw Kunt and the Gang in a local pub, whose act revolves around much use of naughty words in songs about sex.  His best known is "I have a little wank and I have a little cry", Mr Kunt's lyrics accompanied by little more than Bontempi keyboard.  I'm as easily amused by a stream of filth as the next man, but I was left entirely stony-faced by it all, baffled as to the uproarious response he was getting.  It might be that I like my crude humour to be delivered along with something approaching pathos, the exact thing Viz has been doing now for nigh-on 30 years.  Not so much from the titular (boom boom) Fat Slags, but definitely from 8 Ace or the Drunken Bakers.  Without that subtext, a song about giving in to demands for anal sex remains just that.

I was reminded of this on reading the Graun's panel verdict on Charlie Hebdo's front cover.  To Myriam Francois-Cerrah the very depiction of a brown man in a turban is racist, without so much as going in to how the caricature is meant to be Muhammad.  Her kind of satire is "the type that punches up".  Leaving aside how the vast majority of us are relying on differing accounts of Charlie Hebdo, with a former writer claiming it to have become racist, while others disagree, the best satirists aim their barbs at everything that is deserving of being laughed at.  If that's politicians, then great.  If it's religion, regardless of how that might also involve "mocking the faith of the descendants of immigrants largely locked out of power and experiencing acute levels of prejudice", then so be it.

As for Nabila Ramdani, to her the cover is "dated, tired ... and vaguely insults one of the most revered figures in Islam".  She doesn't explain how it vaguely insults Muhammad, probably because for the life of me I cannot see how it can be taken as such unless the very depiction of Muhammad is deemed insulting.  Or is it that Muhammad holding the "Je suis Charlie" banner is insulting when he would never have ascribed to the paper's values?  If it's the former, complaining about the style of the caricature is a bit like saying Private Eye's jokes are the same every fortnight; well, duh, that's rather the point.  It's also "a hugely provocative reminder of how muddled the debate ... has become".  It rather depends on just how outraged you want to be: there's nothing there to say it's Muhammad except that was the artist's intention.  The very fact it's drawn in the same way as the previous caricatures of Muhammad, which all had a satirical message targeting extremists, along with the text all is forgiven ought to make clear the intention is to be both defiant while not blaming anyone other than the killers themselves, and even their actions are not to be held against them.

There is naturally an argument to be had over whether the wider media would reproduce caricatures scatologically mocking other religions say, especially in the United States.  It seems odd however that even here the likes of the Graun feel the need to carry a warning that some may find a mere thumbnail of Charlie Hebdo's cover offensive.  If they do, isn't that rather their problem?  Is there not something completely irrational about taking offence at what is just a drawing of a man in a turban, nothing more, nothing less?  To Joseph Harker this is "trumpeting your rights by trampling over others' sensitivities".  That view might hold more weight if this was being done for the sake of it but the artist, Renald Luzier's, explanation of how it came about surely demonstrates that wasn't the case at all.  Charlie Hebdo's cartoons have always been about something, rather than meant to just provoke, as say the Jesus and Mo strips are.  Hebdo's cause was never taken up by the same dullards and self-promoters as Jesus and Mo was, further bringing home this is something different.

The more anally retentive have spent the last few days pointing out how there is no such thing as a complete right to freedom of speech, nor should there be.  There are laws against incitement and hatred for good reason.  Is it too much to suggest we have perhaps moved too far against a presumption in favour of free speech though, such has been the wish not to offend, to respect sensitivities, without those good intentions being the same thing as political correctness?  The vast majority of people in this country seem to have no problem with the prosecution of Matthew Woods say, who didn't get the celebrity backing afforded to Paul Chambers, while others got very agitated over idiots burning poppies.  Should it come as a surprise others reject notions of freedom of expression when our approach itself comes across so frequently as contradictory or hypocritical?

In the same way as comedy is always subjective, so too is satire.  If you don't like it, you don't have to watch, read or look at it.  How utterly absurd it seems that obvious sentiment has to be repeated even now.  At times, it really does seem like we haven't made a lot of progress in the last 40 odds years, only now it's the left rather than the right which seems more comfortable with censorship.

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Monday, January 12, 2015 

Charlie sets the example.

It's always reassuring to see just how quickly unity and resistance can be appropriated by the very people who want nothing of the sort.  Call me a negative Nancy, but it's one thing for people to spontaneously come together in silent protest and remembrance, as they did on Wednesday night, and something remarkably different when the state itself then urges everyone to do so.  Martin Rowson's cartoon in the Graun points out how the murdered Charlie Hebdo journalists would have seen the irony in politicians who refuse to endorse freedom of speech being invited to march alongside their fellow leaders, and when it comes to Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas joining the parade, who can't talk to each other but will take part in any opportunity for self-promotion, the bad taste left in the mouth has lingered ever since.

Admittedly, Netanyahu hardly couldn't go considering the racist targeting by Amédy Coulibaly of a kosher supermarket, yet it still didn't feel quite right how the Israel/Palestine conflict, regardless of your personal views on it, without doubt exacerbates tensions in a way little else does.  And let's not pretend Israeli politicians of any stripe have recently attempted to calm such feelings: we only have to recall Netanahyu's response to the murders of three Israeli teenagers, when he called for "God to avenge their blood", to realise it's not just non-state actors that invoke religion when they want to.  There have been criticisms of some of the language used by politicians in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, with questioning even of describing the attacks as "barbaric" considering the word's origins, but European leaders have been moderate in the extreme compared to the rhetoric casually thrown back and forth elsewhere.  The cynical response of the Israeli government to those murders led directly to last summer's Gaza conflict, which in turn sparked the horrified news reports about the rise of anti-semitism in Europe.  Nothing of course justifies racism in any form, but when the Israeli government ostensibly collapsed on the very issue of legislation that would have defined Israel as a Jewish state, those same politicians know the game they are playing.

This said, it would be difficult not to be moved by the size of the crowds on the streets of France yesterday.  One wonders however if this was precisely because all real semblance of meaning had already been stripped from "Je suis Charlie", the marches being little more than a indication that life would carry on as before, as though it wouldn't have done anyway.  You could also if you wanted characterise it as a very French reaction to an attack on France rather than one on "freedom of speech" or "universal values"; demonstrating, marching is in the French national character, going all the way back to 1789, passing 1968 right up to the present day.  It just doesn't seem like something that would ever be repeated here, perhaps you can snidely comment because there isn't any such thing as a British national character, and even if there were it certainly wouldn't involve taking to the streets.

Moreover, for all the angry responses to the Charlie Hebdo attack, including from myself, justified as they were, it should once again bring home just how weak those who have set themselves against the West are.  We can agonise over the alienation, and the sense of dispossession some in marginalised communities feel against the countries they were often born in or which gave them sanctuary, and yet it ought to bring home just how small in the number those who feel this way really are.  Compared to those previously attracted to fascism or communism, neither of which are really comparable to jihadism beyond the utopian, or in practice dystopian ideals at their ideological core, it's indicative of just how easy it is to overhype the threat.  To those in Nigeria, let alone in Syria or Iraq, the last few days seen from the outside must have seemed the epitome of Western solipsism.

As I wrote following the release of the ISC report into the murder of Lee Rigby, we've apparently moved past the point where the threat is spectacular mass casualty bomb attacks to one where it's one or two armed men against the full weight of the state.  One armed man carrying out a spree killing in a heavily populated area is almost impossible to prevent.  In France on Friday we're told 80,000 police officers were mobilised, and Coulibaly still managed to launch his deadly assault on somewhere which made for an obvious target.  All three men were also known to the authorities, as were Rigby's killers.  Rather than this being a failure, as much as it is, it also shows how total security is an impossibility.  If someone is motivated enough, they will act, and they can't always be stopped.

This doesn't though stop the authorities from saying if only they had this power, if they only could do this, we'd all be that much safer.  Andrew Parker's speech on Thursday was coincidental rather than taking advantage, but it was no doubt further weaponised after Wednesday's events.  The cynics amongst us might note how it was the head of GCHQ who first denounced internet companies as effectively being hand in glove with terrorists, with his theme fully approved by the ISC in their Rigby report afterwards, no doubt completely unconnected events.  Now in the aftermath of Parker's sermonising, the same old faces and newer ones with their eyes on a greater prize solemnly agree on how essential it is the intelligence agencies get the ability to do whatever the hell they like, which is without hyperbole what they're demanding.

It doesn't seem to occur that it's the very openness of our society that makes us stronger, not as some would have it, more susceptible.  The sight of military personnel outside Jewish schools, while understandable and probably justified as those connected with the killers are sought, is exactly the sort of change those behind the attack seek.  Something meant to reassure nearly always has the exact opposite effect.  It's a small thing also, but it felt distinctly odd on Friday hearing journalists talk about the killing of the three behind the separate attacks being the "best possible outcome"; surely the best outcome would have been to deny them the martyrdom they sought and to bring them before a court, although that was probably impossible in the case of the Kouachi brothers coming out shooting.  Charlie Hebdo itself provides the example we ought to follow: that of continuing as before while remembering.

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Thursday, January 08, 2015 

Solidarity is meaningless unless we embrace freedom.

Trust Matt in the Telegraph to come up with one of the saddest, most poignant cartoon tributes to his slain French colleagues.  "Be careful, they might have pens."  With its echoes of a cartoon from Charlie Hebdo which featured a crying Muhammad, distraught at being followed by murderous idiots, it ought to make the minority still criticising the paper and its use of bad taste humour think again.  It didn't care who it offended, and increasingly that seems a quality to be prized rather than critiqued, however much it will be abused by the witless and those seeking controversy for its own sake.

As was predictable, many are falling into the trap set if not by the murderers themselves, who are unlikely to have given any wider thought to how their actions would be reacted to, then by the ideologues who inspire such attacks.  Yesterday's massacre was not an act of war, but it was meant to give that exact impression.  Jihadists know they cannot possibly win in a a straight fight against nearly any even semi-developed state: Islamic State, for its triumphs, is no nearer controlling either Syria or Iraq than it was prior to Western intervention.  Their main aim is to engender the exact response we saw to 9/11 in Afghanistan and Iraq: draw the West in, wear them down, kill as many soldiers and military contractors as possible, while creating such insecurity that beleaguered communities look to them for protection.

The same principle lies behind symbolic attacks like yesterday's, although none previously have been so professional, so merciless.  We look at the obscene irony of extremists killing people for criticising extremists for killing people, and the first conclusion, a more than reasonable one, is to declare it a war on freedom.  The reality is "they" don't hate us for our freedoms, not least because without those exact freedoms they could not operate as they do, they hate what is against them.  The very nature of takfiri jihadism, as epitomised by Islamic State, is that ideology is secondary to doing whatever they like because they can, as all those who believe power comes directly from the barrel of a gun do.  You'll search in vain for even the most opaque justification for enslaving women in the same way as IS has in the Qu'ran or the hadiths, and IS itself has only about one real Islamic scholar providing justification for their actions, with the other leading jihadist clerics, as shown by their attempts to save the life of Peter Kassig, continuing to oppose what they helped to spawn.

Just as when the predecessor to Islamic State twice attacked the Samarra mosque in Iraq, knowing full well it would intensify the conflict between Sunni and Shia, the ultimate aim of such assaults as well as instilling fear is to tear communities apart, emphasise the differences, to make everyone retreat back into what they know.  Unfortunately for them, the reality is French and British society are both far stronger than the far-right and the extremists believe, as demonstrated by how beyond the outpouring of grief over the murder of Lee Rigby, which saw war memorials across the country festooned with messages and tributes, there was no rise in support for the EDL despite their best efforts, with the result being the all but collapse of the movement.  There will always be knuckledraggers who respond to such attacks by defacing mosques or worst, as there have been in France, yet the true spirit of the nation was shown by the impromptu vigils of last night.  The same goes for the likes of Nigel Farage, with his comments on multiculturalism, as though despite the problems of integration this can all be linked back to "fifth columns" of enemies within, rather than a variant of totalitarian ideology we've fought against before.

Describing jihadism in such terms is undoubtedly to give it a dignity it doesn't deserve.  Stalin joked about how many divisions the Pope had, and you could ask the same of the self-proclaimed caliph.  The threat I wrote about yesterday doesn't come from such weaklings, from such a pitiful belief system, but from how we so easily forget democracy as we know it is such a recent development.  Universal suffrage is not even two centuries old, and despite Fukuyama declaring the End of History so pompously, the West's values having triumphed, the harsher reality is the nation soon to be the world's biggest economy gives no indication of moving towards one person one vote as we recognise it.  Russia under Putin is a democracy in name only, popular support for the president aside, and whereas free speech in the United States is protected by the constitution, in Europe about the best guarantor of liberty is the European Convention on Human Rights, the same one so loathed by the Tories and UKIP.

Combined with how there is no real love for true freedom of speech in this country, having just experienced an entire year that seemed to be nothing other than people taking offence both for the sake of it and to push their own agendas, where making extremely bad jokes on social media can see you fired within hours, or indeed imprisoned, and the picture is not quite as rosy as we'd like to believe.  Solidarity with Charlie Hebdo will not mean anything if we continue to self-censor, as we have, if we go on hounding those who go beyond what we deem "acceptable" rather than just criticising them, if we don't protect our freedoms in the face not of an Islamist assault but of that from securocrats and politicians who say they can deliver safety.  Already tonight MI5 is whinging about its capabilities, losing no time in taking advantage before the initial shock wears off.

A repeat of yesterday's massacre is unlikely.  The mistakes of the past and the now most certainly will be.

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Wednesday, January 07, 2015 

Je suis Charlie.

Cowardly is one of the words universally reached for to describe terrorist outrages.  In many instances, its use doesn't properly convey how while the use of violence against the defenceless can never be justified, someone willing to sacrifice their life for their cause, regardless of how vile that cause may be, can not truly be described as cowardly.  Stupid and self-defeating yes, cowardly no, in the same way there's often an extremely fine line between bravery and being foolhardy.

What is without a doubt cowardly is running someone over and then attempting to decapitate them as they lie unconscious.  What is not is then running at armed police with the intention of being killed, the police to their credit in that instance not giving them their lusted after "martyrdom". 

The absolute definition of cowardly, by comparison, were the actions carried out today in Paris against the journalists of Charlie Hebdo.  With apparent knowledge of when the satirical paper's editorial meeting was being held, 2 men armed with assault rifles massacred 10 people whose only weapons were words, drawings, and ideas.  They were targeted in offices from where there was no easy escape, desks and furniture offering the merest protection.  Then, just to emphasise their brutality, their lack of pity, one of the masked individuals executed an apparently unarmed, already stricken police officer before the group made their getaway.

Everything about the attack suggests this was the work of men with a certain amount of military training, not the "lone wolves" or "self-starters" much warned about.  From the weapons used, the way they were determined to make their escape rather than die in the process, to how the assault was planned somewhat and probably even rehearsed, it points towards funding or at the very least tenuous backing from a foreign jihadist group.  While thoughts immediately turned to Islamic State, or men possibly having returned from Syria, the claim from a witness that one of the attackers said they were from al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula makes just as much sense.  All of AQAP's previous attempts to attack the West have involved bombs, and all have either failed or been foiled.  By switching to a guerilla style assault, and against the softest of targets, the chances of another failure were drastically reduced.

The only question then remaining is why specifically go after Charlie Hebdo, "insulting" of the prophet aside, rather than a Mumbai-style attack or a reprise of something like the Taliban attack on the school in Peshawar.  One explanation is Islamic State's brutality and takfirism has succeeded in revolting the Muslim world in a way al-Qaida itself never managed.  Many Sunnis may see the Syrian conflict mainly through the prism of sectarianism, but few look to Islamic State as the best alternative to Assad, even while supporting groups whose ideology is much the same.  Killing those who dared to satirise Muhammad is more defensible than an indiscriminate attack, and it also reannounces AQAP as the only real challenger to IS as the standbearer of the banner of global jihad.

One thing the attackers and their backers will have barely thought about is the consequences.  They have no interest in freedom of thought, of speech, how the only possible response is an outpouring of rage, sadness and defiance at how in the 21st century people are still being targeted, killed for criticising and mocking organised religion.  They care nothing for how their actions only underline the sheer poverty of their unquestionable doctrine, how unutterably weak their prophet and God must be if they can't take being caricatured.  The most powerful entity in all creation, who gave us the power of free will, and yet neither he nor his messenger are to be depicted as anything other than benevolent, peace be upon them.  If they considered it at all, they probably counted on it resulting in the exact soldiarity that has occurred, which will see the cartoons they killed over republished and spread wider than before.

Much will be wrote and already has been written about what the reaction should be, and then those all too familiar axes will be ground, about how all Muslims should condemn the attack without reservation, at how we have much the same extremists in our midst.  It comes at the precise moment when the far-right is on the march, literally in Germany, and as the National Front polls higher than ever in France itself.  The murderers of course have no concern for their co-religionists and the wave of hostility that always follows such outrages, at the same time as they justify their actions in the name of defending the honour of the Ummah.  One reaction that probably won't be noted but deserves to be is how those nations that have done to so much to spread extremist interpretations of Islam will condemn the attack, then carry on just as before, executing "sorcerers", enforcing blasphemy laws and funding "moderate" armed groups of their choosing.

Regular readers will know I'm not one for jumping on bandwagons, for echoing hashtag sentiments.   Tonight though I too am Charlie.  The aphorism that the pen is mightier than the sword is not always true, but what history suggests is the pen triumphs in the end.  The challenge today is to ensure that carries on.

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Thursday, January 16, 2014 

The real nanny state.

You might have missed it if you've been too busy reading all the juicy, sorry I mean disgusting allegations being made against both Bill Roache and Dave Lee Travis, gleefully, I mean dutifully reported by the country's finest, but just before Christmas Cameron's great firewall of Britain was finally finished.  The other big ISPs that had yet to put in place their "default on" internet filters duly turned them on, and to no surprise whatsoever many non-adult sites were blocked.  The filters it seemed had a special dislike for anything LGBT-related, exactly the kind of sites that confused or bullied children should never be able to see, while they also forbade access to blogs dealing with file sharing, rather than just actual file sharing sites.  Big no signs also appeared instead of sex education sites, in another development absolutely everyone saw coming.  These problems were naturally called "teething troubles", and no doubt some of the more egregious ones were quickly ironed out.

Something we haven't had previously was one of those in favour of "default on" filtering coming out and properly responding to an article critiquing the entire approach.  The Graun today gave space to John Carr, secretary of the Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety, to reply to Laurie Penny's piece for the paper at the start of the year.  Apart from Penny's opening paragraph, which imagined someone being phoned by their ISP and asked whether they wanted to still be able to see dripping quims, ravaged buttholes and terrorists beheading infidels (I paraphrase slightly), which isn't how the filtering is being implemented but is an accurate picture of how some, finding their access has been restricted, will be contacting their ISP's help desk, it was a decent summation of how we got where we were and how closely related it was to outright censorship.

Carr is of course having none of it.  All the new approach is doing is helping parents, "making it a great deal easier ... to use filters if they want them".  The decision is entirely theirs, not the state's.  Except, by putting such pressure on ISPs to change their policies and implement "default on" filtering it, it seems remarkably close to it in my eyes.  If the decision was entirely theirs, as adults, then surely the default should be off?  Only those of age can take out a new account giving them internet access, so where's the harm in making such filters easily available but have them off by default?  Indeed, isn't the very fact they are on unless you choose to switch them off a wonderful example of providing a false sense of security?  Making parents believe the net will be safe for their children due to the new filters, meaning they don't have to do anything to protect them, seems even more irresponsible than the situation we had before to this layman.

Still, Carr says ISPs are just catching up with the mobile firms that have had their filters turned on since 2005.  What he doesn't mention is that only those with a credit card (not a debit card) can turn the filtering off, which excludes a decent chunk of the population.  Those without one who wish to have it turned off need to find their provider's local store and bring ID to prove they can look at mucky pictures if they so wish on their smartphone.  It's a great example of infantilisation, but one we're apparently prepared to live with.  Carr also dismisses Penny's claim that all we've heard about to do with filtering is pornography, or indeed child pornography, which the likes of Claire Perry willfully conflated in a successful campaign for something to be done.  How would a 9-year-old sleep after viewing a double chainsaw murder, he asks?  Considering that such extreme violence is even more difficult to stumble upon than pornography without specifically searching for it, this seems a rather moot argument.  A better question is how many 9-year-olds would be seeking out gore videos, the likely answer being hardly any.  Carr next mentions "women-hating violence", such as three men simultaneously beating and raping a woman.  Unless I've missed something, one of the few things yet to be recorded and posted online is the actual rape of a woman, so one presumes Carr is talking about a scene cut out of a film.  Again, how likely is a child to find something of that nature, especially one as young as 9 without looking for it?

This distracts in any case from the main arguments against, which are the filters should not be on by default and that if we must have filters, they should be a good deal smarter than the ones we seem to have been stuck with.  They should also be as transparent as possible: as mocked as O2's short-lived filter checker was (this blog was blacklisted on the under-12 filter, along with much of the rest of the internet), it was the only example of an ISP being clear with those supposedly responsible on what was actually being blocked.  Just as adults are able to see what ratings films and games have been given and make their own decision as to what to allow their children to see/play, why should there not be something similar to O2's checker where you can put in a URL and see its classification?  Perhaps it's because, as Cory Doctorow wrote, that such lists are considered to be trade secrets.  Carr says the filters will get better and errors can be easily rectified, but will they be?  Mobile operators are still incredibly reticent about their blocking practices, not inspiring confidence ISPs will be any different.

Carr finishes by saying that parents shouldn't "feel obliged to provide unrestricted access to all its horrors", but this obfuscates the issue.  Filters and censorware have long been available, only it was up to parents to make the decision for themselves as to whether to use them.  Making filters available as they have been, just not demanding they be default on, would fulfil Carr's argument.  We've reached a position where not just pornography but "extremist" material, file-sharing sites and everything in between is blacklisted by default, something you don't have to be a conspiracy nut to think is beneficial to both government and big business.  This has all been achieved through the age-old method of asking "won't someone think of the children?", the default fall back argument of the censorious everywhere.  Combined with the child porn angle pursued by the Mail, it's not a surprise the ISPs and Google gave in, or at least gave the impression they had.  What ought to be surprising is that a party which has constantly derided the "nanny state" and urges personal responsibility at every turn has been the one to do so.

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Monday, November 18, 2013 

An invented victory over an invented threat.

"Stunning victory for Mail campaign", screams the eponymous newspaper's front page.  "GOOGLE BLOCK ON CHILD PORN", it goes on, while David Cameron says that Google and Yahoo have "come a long way" following his speech earlier in the year calling for action.  You could easily be fooled into thinking that with one stroke, the major search engines have dealt a critical blow against the depraved and evil people sharing child abuse images and videos online.  Cameron says there's more to be done, and there's the little matter of p2p sharing and the "dark net", but Claire Perry's pleased and the Mail is similarly delighted, so clearly the pressure has worked, right?

Well, sort of.  Read the reports a little closer, and it instead becomes fairly apparent that Google has reacted to the demands of the ignorant by making it look as though they've done more than they actually have.  In his piece for the Mail, the executive chairman of Google Eric Schmidt talks of how the results for 100,000 queries "that might be related to the sexual abuse of kids" have been cleaned up, while the BBC reports how the new algorithms "will prevent searches for child abuse imagery delivering results that could lead to such material".  In other words, there is absolutely nothing to say that any one of those 100,000 search terms did lead to such material in the first place, or that all of those queries had been used by someone looking for abusive images.  It's worth remembering that despite all the ravings of the Mail and friends in June and July, not a single journo claimed to have been able to access child pornography (and no, calling it child pornography does not legitimise it, unless you're too stupid to understand the nuances of the English language) through using just Google or any other search engine, although we did have Amanda Platell tell us that a professionally shot adult scene featuring an 19-year-old was in fact child abuse.  Charles Arthur wonders why it took Google so long to do this; the reason, apparently enough, is that it didn't really need to.

Nor has Cameron's other key demand from his speech, that there are some search terms so "abhorrent and where there can be no doubt whatsoever about the sick and malevolent intent" that no results should be returned at all become a reality.  Instead, Google has put warnings from both themselves and charities at the top of the pages for around 13,000 results.  The implication is that none of these search terms returned material either, but again, it looks as if they've given in to pressure to do something, however futile.  Where the furore does seem to have resulted in some real action is it looks as though Google has developed a video equivalent of Microsoft's PhotoDNA, where pictures can be traced even if they're resized or the colours altered.  This again however isn't going to make much difference when neither photos or videos of child abuse are much shared on YouTube or the main social networking sites.

The real question to ask might be just how counter-productive this debate by megaphone has been.  Cameron reckons a Google deterrence campaign "led to a 20% drop off in people trying to find illegal content", yet apparently puts this down as a success rather than wondering whether it in fact means they went elsewhere.  This entire episode has been defined by ignorance, and it's not necessarily a good thing that a lot more people now know about Tor or the other "dark nets" than they did previously.  Cameron says he's going to sic GCHQ onto them, and while it's somewhat reassuring that previously the NSA and GCHQ failed to crack Tor, it's clearly possible they could break it, endangering those who do use it to evade the surveillance of authoritarian states. 

All that's likely to have been achieved by Google etc humouring the government and the Mail is a few of the more boneheaded perverts being told by their computers they need help, while doing nothing to help those in the clutches of the abusers.  Politicians and newspapers trying to make complicated and intractable problems look easily solvable while making them the responsibility of others? Who woulda thunk it?

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Thursday, October 17, 2013 

Where are the Voltaires of yesteryear?

James Bloodworth, via Chris, wonders where today's equivalents to Voltaire are, especially in the social networking age when tabloids and users compete as to who can be the most outraged about what someone else has either said or done.  The obvious answer is they mostly died out not long after Voltaire himself; we might have had Thomas Paine, and more recently produced George Orwell, but believing in the American model of freedom of speech and expression has never been a popular pursuit in this country.  You could blame the press principally for this, and the countless campaigns down the years for the public to be protected from themselves over the latest moral panic, yet it's surely more that we never got round to having a proper written constitution, the closest thing we do have being the European Convention on Human Rights, which naturally is loathed by the tabloids and right-wing politicians for "favouring" criminals and terrorists over the public.

For instance, despite how we pride ourselves on being a tolerant democracy, with our politicians occasionally going into raptures about our parliament being the mother of them all, even if it wasn't until the 19th century that the common man was able to vote (women had to wait another 60 years), there's been relatively little criticism when people have been jailed for making either off colour jokes or wearing t-shirts with offensive slogans.  It was a protest by a tiny band of Luton based Islamists against the homecoming of the Royal Anglian regiment that prompted the forming of the English Defence League, as though the country needed the protection services of a bunch of wannabe football hooligans against such horror.  Most seriously, two young men were sentenced to four years in prison for setting up phony event pages during the riots of August 2011, terms longer than many of those who did take part in the disorder received.  Unlike Paul Chambers, neither Jordan Blackshaw or Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan received the sympathy or financial backing of celebrities in an effort to get their convictions quashed.

The thing I find really strange about the campaigns against page 3 and lads' mags is they're ran by people who consider themselves liberal who, whether they realise it or not, are echoing the exact same arguments made by the censors of the past.  Just as the likes of the Mail and Mary Whitehouse claimed at the dawn of mass ownership of video recorders that horror films could deprave and corrupt the naive and innocent, so now we hear the likes of Zoo and Nuts objectify women, help to sustain a sexist culture and at their most malignant even have the potential to turn their readers into rapists.  While there's no doubt they're often tasteless, and on occasion have veered off into the truly vile, the idea that simply seeing a cover of one can constitute harassment is ludicrous, and if LTLM's interpretation of the Equality Act is correct, then it quite apparently needs to be redrafted (it's worth noting the entire Caroline Criado-Perez Twitter stupidity began after she invoked the Equality Act as demanding there must be a woman on a bank note). Moreover, the idea that removing lads' mags from the shelves will achieve anything in age where sexting and revenge porn are the new cause for concern seems the equivalent of generals always fighting the last war.

The same could be said for the stalemate over press regulation.  As much as it is specious nonsense to claim the royal charter would be the end of 300 years of press freedom, such have been the attacks of the past week anyone still saying we shouldn't worry about the potential for a change to the regulator via a two-thirds majority in parliament ought to think again.  Self-regulation has manifestly failed and a reconstitution of a slightly beefed up PCC needs to be resisted, yet the alternative now appears worse.  Ofcom can't be trusted as far as they can be thrown, which should rule out their involvement, which leaves us with just about nothing.  Perhaps the answer will be that newspapers in their current form are dying, some faster than others.  With the shift towards online publishing, it could be possible to better hold the press to account such will be the reliance on advertising rather than the shifting of newsprint.

Of courser, it might just be that rather than having Voltaires, we now have contrarians, or those paid to go against the consensus view on every subject.  And let's face it: no one wants to be Brendan O'Neill.

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Monday, July 22, 2013 

Moral panic: on by default.

We live, so it seems, in a distinctly weird world.  Never before have we had such easy access to a full array of sexual imagery, and yet despite being able to summon up almost any fetish at the click of a mouse, we don't seem to want to discuss why something turns us on, or what it says about us personally.  Fundamentally, that's down to how we don't want to be judged; despite porn being consumed as never before, we still regard it as being embarrassing or difficult to talk about, understandably so.  We also don't really want to know whether our friends or loved ones might have say, a scat fetish, or even something more prosaic like being partial to BDSM.  What goes on in someone else's bedroom is their business, so long as no one gets hurt.  The same applies to watching other people doing what we would like to, or fantasise about doing; no one else needs to know.

Except, when we don't talk about and rationalise it, what we end up getting is the semi-moral panic we're currently going through, stoked almost solely by the government and certain newspapers.  They have provided absolutely no evidence whatsoever for any of their claims, most specifically that images of child abuse are proliferating, or that normal "online pornography is corroding childhood".  That they haven't is nonetheless irrelevant; without parliament so much as being involved, from the end of the year the big four ISPs, having been pressured into doing so, will block the majority of pornographic sites by default.  These default filters will almost certainly wrongly block plenty of material that is not pornographic (as this blog was by some mobile internet providers), but who cares when it's all about protecting children?  It's surely a small price to pay for something approaching peace of mind.

Here's how the campaign by the likes of Claire Perry and the Daily Mail has worked.  Having failed to build momentum behind their demands despite the Bailey review into the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood, they struck upon conflating child pornography (as we're not allowed to call it, as apparently simply describing it as such is to somehow legitimise it) with legal pornography.  Helped along by the Tia Sharp and April Jones cases, the haranguing of ISPs and search engines for not blocking child porn (despite the fact there is relatively little they can do when they're not the ones hosting it) morphed into haranguing them for allowing a so-called free for all.  Responsibility it seems is not with the parents or adults to ensure that their children can't access material not suitable for them, it begins instead with the ISP.  As I've pointed out before, for a supposedly conservative government to be passing the buck from those truly responsible to those who provide a service to adults, considering they're the ones paying the bill, is quite a break with their usual thinking.

David Cameron's speech today was an absolute classic of the meaning the opposite of what was said genre.  He starts off by saying how difficult it is for politicians to talk about the subject, and it is indeed difficult for them to talk about when parliament has gone into recess for the summer and they don't seem to have been offered the chance to discuss it anyway.  He relates that he doesn't want to "moralise and scare-monger", the paragraph after he's stated without qualification that "online pornography is corroding childhood" and how the internet is impacting on the "innocence of children".  He says that the issues of images of child abuse and underage access to porn are "very distinct and different" challenges, but that they have something in common.  Namely, that it's been decided it's good politics to conflate the two as it reduces opposition.  After all, everyone hates nonces, don't they?

It quickly becomes clear just why the ISPs and search engines have become so agitated at what they see as the ignorance displayed by politicians.  Cameron in his section on illegal images talks as though the way in which search engines work is manual, rather than automatic and constant, saying the comparison with the Post Office isn't accurate as the likes of Google facilitate access to the illegal material knowingly.  This is nonsense.  It also doesn't seem to matter that as we've discussed, it's exceptionally difficult to find such material by accident, or indeed, even deliberately through search engines, what matters is that something is being seen to be done.  What's more, the internet giants should be putting their top people on solving this very problem that doesn't exist, to stop images and videos being posted in the first place!

Finally, and to really make clear how serious everyone is, there are some searches that are so "abhorrent and where there can be no doubt whatsoever about the sick and malevolent intent" that no results should be returned at all.  You know, like how in China on a firewalled connection if you search for "Tiananmen Square" you'll get plenty of information on the square itself but be hard pressed to find any on the massacre.  Not even during New Labour's hyper authoritarian period did they suggest censoring the internet lest anyone commit a truly "sick and malevolent" thought crime and expect to get something back if they did.  The message seems to be that the person committing the offence should be glad that GCHQ don't immediately send the police round.

When it comes to the "default on" blocking on new connections, the mindset behind it is equally transparent. Claire Perry addresses legal pornography in the same way as campaigners against drugs have in the past described cannabis as being a "gateway" to the harder stuff, saying she believes the killers of April Jones and Tia Sharp "had stumbled upon" illegal images having first browsed perfectly legal material.  This rather ignores the fact that neither Mark Bridger or Stuart Hazell were young men, still uncertain of their sexuality.  By that point, you are either sexually attracted to some children, or you aren't.  This isn't to say someone can't develop a fascination with one particular child, as Stuart Hazell may have done with Tia, and then attempt to persuade themselves that the feelings they're having are perfectly normal through accessing images of abuse, but it's relatively rare.  That both Bridger and Hazell, as adults, would have been able to turn a "default on" filter off also doesn't seem to make her think twice about her argument.

Which pretty much sums it all up.  If Perry and friends really want to protect children, then the emphasis on filters over everything else spectacularly misses the point.  Cameron mentions education in his speech, but only as an effective afterword.  No filter can block everything; sure, it'll almost certainly take out the porn equivalents of YouTube, but it won't prevent access to the few remaining public torrent sites and their XXX sections, the's where everything under the sun is hosted including porn, or indeed the numerous porn blogs on Tumblr.  Proxy servers are incredibly easy to use, and the kid that does have access is soon going to be helping out their friends who've found themselves blocked.  What it will do is treat adults as children, as they so often have been in the past for the supposed good of the latter.  Those who hate porn and don't want to engage with how it's become part of modern culture, for both good and bad, love the idea of those wanting to access it having to embarrass themselves by ringing up their ISP, as will happen, knowing many won't. As for the others who just don't want to talk about desire and turn-ons as it's icky and difficult, well, this helps them as well.  Acceptable porn, such as Fifty Shades, will still be available to all and sundry; that other stuff, the disreputable, industrialised output that could be improved if only we felt able to properly address it, will remain the standard behind the "default on", helping precisely no one.

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Tuesday, June 18, 2013 

Ignorance, immaturity and idiocy: all part of the debate on the internet and porn.

I'm struggling to think of a recent issue so appallingly approached and debated as the recent blow up over the availability of pornography on the internet has been.  The only really comparable issue that comes to mind was the short lived moral panic over "meow meow", or Mephedrone, where the Sun was in the vanguard, claiming at one point that teachers would have to give the drug back to any students it was confiscated from as it wasn't illegal.  Interestingly, the "legal high" market continues to grow, leaving even more questions for potential users over safety, yet the tabloids seem to have decided the story's done.

Even that outbreak of silliness can't compete though with the idiocy that's descended thanks to the collision of technology and naked human flesh.  While the lead has been taken by the Daily Mail, the Sun having always had a problem commenting on porn thanks to its continuing attachment to publishing a topless woman on its third page almost every day, we've also had stunningly stupid interventions from the former broadsheets.  The Graun comprehensively cocked up by publishing an editorial which seemed to call for the banning of all porn, later corrected to "just" violent porn, while the Sunday Times has been caught out using some exceptionally dodgy statistics to claim we're living in "generation porn", using an image of a topless woman to illustrate its point, natch.

Obviously, there are two separate issues at the heart of the sound and fury which require entirely different responses, although the conflation of the two hasn't helped matters.  First is that any action which makes images of child abuse more difficult to find on the net is a good thing.  We don't know how Stuart Hazell or Mark Bridger got hold of the images they viewed before they went on to kill Tia Sharp and April Jones respectively, or just how much of an influence they had on their crimes, but it can't be denied they played some role. What doesn't help is the scaremongering and apparent lack of knowledge displayed by those pushing at an open door. One Daily Mail headline gave the impression that Google was the internet, and so could deal with child porn at a stroke if it wished, while it also claimed 1.5 million people had "stumbled" on such images. To top all that, it enlisted Amanda Platell to try and find some illegal material, only for the queen of the Glendas to claim a  scene from 2001 featuring a then 19-year-old was proof of the easy availability of filmed child abuse.

The reality is that unless you actively seek it out, it is exceptionally rare to encounter images or video of child abuse by chance. In 15 years or so of using the internet, and having spent a significant period of that time not always on the most salubrious of sites, only twice have I come across images that almost certainly were of abuse. The first was many years ago when exploring a back door posted on a forum into one of the early sites that offered space to host images. By refreshing a specific link, a new image was randomly fetched from seemingly all those that had been uploaded, and one, and just one from the dozens or more looked to be of abuse. The second, far more prosaically, was when I happened to be browsing /b/ on 4chan at the time as someone decided to flood it with images of children, something it's long been notorious for.

The worry is not just journalists that don't know what they're writing about, but politicians also being ignorant of how things work.  When Maria Miller talks of preventing images from even becoming available in the first place, it's difficult not to sigh.  This lack of knowledge does indeed seem to have irked ISPs, with one source complaining to the Graun about today's meeting with the government that "generally speaking the politicians there fundamentally (or wilfully) misunderstand the technical and legal aspects to the subject".  When increasingly those who are doing something dodgy move towards the so-called "darknet", or use TOR to access the deep web, there's relatively little that the ISPs themselves can do.  Giving the Internet Watch Foundation more funding to actively seek out illegal material might help, but considering in the past they've made some extraordinarily stupid decisions about what to block, handing an unaccountable organisation even more leeway isn't necessarily a unmitigated good thing.

When it comes to the easy online availability of perfectly legal pornography, it continues to amaze me how a Conservative government that preaches personal responsibility in every other area seems to think in this instance it's not the duty of parents to ensure they have measures in place to stop their children from viewing it.  There really ought to be no excuse for not doing so; the generation having children now (which, rather scarily, is my own) were brought up with computers and so can't claim to be completely illiterate.  It certainly is true that it's difficult to block access to every video sharing site, and it's all but impossible to stop children from sending each other videos they've acquired from somewhere over their phones, but if they've reached the age at which they're doing that then they're old enough to be sat down and talked with about what it is they've watched.  Yes, there needs to be a change in sex education so that pornography is discussed and addressed, but it's also down to parents to explain that porn is fantasy and has very little connection with real life.  For the vast majority, porn is not going to damage them, or make them lose their innocence.  If anything, parents tend to be shocked by how much their offspring already know by the time they get round to it.

This isn't to regard porn as a whole as being harmless, although I'd say most of it is and its spread may even have had some positive effects, but it's ridiculous to regard it as being a unique danger to children and their development.  I watch porn even though there's many things about much of it that I loathe, whether it be the despicable misogyny that disfigures the "reality" genre that now dominates, or the way that so much of it follows the same tired format of suck, fuck, "facial", the latter which is troubling in itself.  The only way we can deal with its increasing influence is to discuss it maturely: if we don't, then those who've grown up with it accessible at the click of a mouse will.

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Monday, February 13, 2012 


It's come to my attention thanks to the good people at the Open Rights Group that this blog is being blocked by the mobile phone operators O2, T-Mobile, Vodafone and Orange for those who haven't verified their age and opted out of the default censorship on their networks. Hopefully apparent as it is that this blog isn't pornography, ORG point out that those who do opt out of the default firewall are often actually asked to "opt-in" to porn.

This blocking wouldn't be so bad if it was easier to appeal against, yet it seems as though the only way to get a site removed from the blacklist is for users themselves to complain, rather than site owners. ORG have the contact details for each of the major networks on their Blocked site, and I wholeheartedly support their recommendations for how the current system can be improved:

Phone companies should ensure that:

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Thursday, October 13, 2011 

The pornography of terror.

It's proving to be a busy three months for the good people down in Soho Square. No sooner had the BBFC rejected Tom Six's magnum opus the Human Centipede II, a decision which last week they reversed after the director offered to truncate his work, removing scenes of sandpaper masturbation and barbed-wire rape, than they're banning a slightly more serious work, Adam Rehmeier's The Bunny Game.

The two films, although both in the horror genre, could hardly be more different, despite it seems sharing the same black and white aesthetic. The Human Centipede is pure fantasy, albeit it "torture-porn" indebted fantasy; The Bunny Game is startlingly grounded in reality, to the point where the film's star and co-writer Rodleen Getsic, according to the makers, genuinely endured the treatment her character receives from the truck driver who abducts her, everything you see apparently being real. Agreeing to be branded with a hot iron for your art is not the only disconcerting apparent detail: Getsic according to some reviews has experienced abuse herself in the past, something alluded to in this piece she links to from her Twitter account.

If the making of the film was in some way meant to act as both therapy and catharsis, then it poses further uncomfortable questions for both censor and viewer: the BBFC, concerned as ever with the potential for harm, for once quite reasonably worries that "the lack of explanation of the events depicted, and the stylistic treatment, may encourage some viewers to enjoy and share in the man’s callousness and the pleasure he takes in the woman’s pain and humiliation". For the viewer, there's the knowledge that if this is part of an attempt by Getsic to turn her very real past pain into a performance while also emphasising the fact that suffering ends and life goes on, then by watching are you playing a role in something which very few therapists would advise? Are those attracted to such material complicit in deriving entertainment from the very real acts of violence committed by murderers and abductors?

Without having seen the film, it's difficult to be able to say for certain just how brutal the violence is, and whether it genuinely does break new ground in the horror endurance stakes. Unlike the also recently banned Grotesque, which fitted into the Japanese mini-genre of pseudo-snuff horror associated with the Guinea Pig series of films, it instead appears to bear a resemblance to the final act of the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre, where the character Sally endures almost a full half hour of terrorisation at the hands of her captors, before finally escaping and experiencing the euphoria of freedom. TCM was one of the few films that the BBFC's former director James Ferman felt could not be released in any form, with the organisation's student case study revealing he described it as "the pornography of terror". What it doesn't make clear is that Ferman overruled all those under him at the organisation who felt it could be released, with the unsurprising result being that almost as soon as he retired the film was passed 18 uncut.

It's this fear of the "pornography of terror" which it seems has returned to claim a new victim. Even considering the fact that The Bunny Game is far more graphic than TCM ever was, one thing that is absurd for the board to complain about is that there's no apparent explanation for the violence depicted in the film. The idea that violence, abduction and murder can always be given such an explanation is to ignore the fact that on some occasions there is no real reason; it's simply because the perpetrator can. They may well derive and sexual and sadistic pleasure from their crimes, but that is to only partially understand why. If the film's whole raison d'etre is to portray the grim reality of what some victims have gone through, then it appears the BBFC would rather that such accounts are toned down before they can be accepted as fiction. Indeed, in passing TCM the BBFC noted that

any possible harm that might arise in terms of the effect upon a modern audience would be more than sufficiently countered by the unrealistic, even absurd, nature of the action itself.

The implication appears to be that film-makers at the extreme end of horror can't win either way. Go for too much realism and you'll be banned, while you'll also find your work cut if you cast aside reality and stitch together multiple people from mouth to anus and put abrasive materials into the mix. That adults should be able to decide for themselves what they personally can stomach and experience seems as distant an ideal as it has ever been.

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