Regulating pornography is no simple matter

Software is bound to throw up absurd anomalies

Pornography is a bad thing, but it is no simple matter to control or outlaw it. Photograph: AP

Pornography is a bad thing, but it is no simple matter to control or outlaw it. Photograph: AP


David Cameron has just executed a very skilful gambit. Desperate to appease the Daily Mail, keen to improve his dismal standing with female voters, the UK prime minister announced a proposal to impose a class of casual censorship on the internet. Don’t we get in a tizzy when the Chinese try this sort of thing? Isn’t this the first step on the road to totalitarianism?

The twist, of course, is that Mr Cameron is seeking to restrict digital pornography and, in particular, the availability of that unlovely stuff to children. To this end, his government will demand that all service providers install “family-friendly filters” and ensure that the virtual devices begin life in the “on” position. Should the user wish to receive any restricted content he or she will have to deactivate the blocking software.

He also wants to ban pornographic depictions of violent acts and to restrict searches for certain terms.

Cameron and his media sponsors (the Mail has long campaigned for such legislation) have constructed a looming bear trap for anybody who dares to lodge an objection. Raise concerns about the creeping hand of censorship, the obvious practical difficulties or the shifting of responsibility from parent to state and you risk looking as if you are defending the (ahem) dissemination of online pornography.

Demeaning sexual imagery
I have, in this place, argued that the rampaging growth in demeaning sexual imagery – and its increasing social acceptance – has served to accelerate the objectification of women in ways that feminists of the pre-internet age could barely have contemplated. The growth of lad culture in the 1990s spread a lusty stripper aesthetic that, to this point, had remained confined to rugby-club changing rooms and stag parties for slopeheads. I am, in short, puritanical in these matters. Pornography is a bad thing.

The proposed initiative, however, reminds us of Sir Humphrey Appleby’s satirical take on government by knee jerk in the timeless TV comedy Yes, Minister. “Something must be done. This is something. Therefore we must do this.”

If you want an example of where such tabloid-massaging foolishness can lead then think back to the video nasty frenzy that engulfed the UK in the 1980s. Inspired by largely imaginary concerns about children turning into maniacs after a few viewings of Driller Killer, the hysteria led to raids on shops selling titles such as Apocalypse Now and the harmless Dolly Parton musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. David Hamilton Grant, an independent distributor, actually ended up in prison for selling a version of Romano Scavolini’s jolly Nightmares in a Damaged Brain that was a few seconds longer than the approved cut. Even cultural conservatives now regard the episode as an unmitigated disaster.

The challenges facing the officials who will decide what constitutes online pornography are considerably more complex than those that flummoxed framers of the 1984 Video Recordings Act.

We can hardly trust pornographers to police themselves. If every civil servant and every employee of the service providers were reallocated to online censorship it would still prove impossible to assess the millions of websites established daily. The job will, of course, be trusted to lumps of software.

Coal tits
Anybody who has ever tried to file copy through the firewalls of a national newspaper will understand how quirky such modesty filters can be. Earlier this week, an English journalist told me of the difficulties a colleague had submitting cricket reports on Sussex matches (think about it) to a prominent left-leaning quality newspaper. Heaven help you if you are attempting to write the ornithology column when the coal tits are mating.

It is inconceivable that any anti-pornography software will not kick up such anomalies. So what? You are a responsible adult. Genuine enthusiasts for shaggy donkeys can turn off their filters and – without going near the properly naughty sites – continue their researches into “hairy asses”.

Here’s the problem. You are now on a list of people who have requested that pornography be allowed on their computer. Given certain revelations about government snooping, no sane person could be relaxed about such a situation.

Then there are the wider moral and social issues. How do we decide whether a depiction of sexual violence is pornographic or not? Ban all such sequences and you lose The Accused and Thelma and Louise (not to mention adaptations of certain works by Thomas Hardy, William Shakespeare and John Galsworthy). Who or what draws the line?

Cameron can call it what it likes. But if it smells like state control then it probably is state control. Padraig Reidy, indomitable toiler for Index on Censorship, addressed the plans with impressive clarity last week. “It simply sets up the idea of censorship as a de facto thing that we accept as the default,” he said.

True. And it won’t work anyway.

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