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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 uploaded.net'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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