some thoughts on internet porn filters

Posted by on July 26th, 2013

So, David Cameron is keen to crack down on access to online pornography. Some people are thrilled about this. Others, not so much. Here is some detail from the previous link:

“Every household in Britain connected to the Internet will be obliged to declare whether they want to maintain access to online pornography, David Cameron will announce on Monday.

In the most dramatic step by the government to crack down on the “corroding” influence of pornography on childhood, the prime minister will say that all internet users will be contacted by their service providers and given an “unavoidable choice” on whether to use filters.”


“He will say:

* The possession of “extreme pornography”, which includes scenes of simulated rape is to be outlawed.
* The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) is to draw up a blacklist of “abhorrent” internet search terms to identify and prevent paedophiles searching for illegal material.
* All police forces will work with a single secure database of illegal images of children to help “close the net on paedophiles”.”

I’m sure the net on paedophiles is one we’d all like to close, and even though I suspect only the thickest of them use Twitter or insecure websites readily accessible via Google to circulate such material, it’s difficult to object. Simulated rape seems slightly trickier to me. While I wouldn’t like to meet an individual who finds such material sexually arousing, the emphasis should surely rest on simulated. If no laws are broken in the production of certain material, I’m unsure why laws should have been broken by viewing it. In addition, it feels like a very blurry definition. I don’t want to imagine somebody jerking off to rape porn, but I also think Irreversible is a masterpiece – albeit distressing and deeply upsetting. It contains an unbearable 9 minute rape scene. If you were so inclined, I suppose you could jerk off to that. Should that be outlawed?

On the subject of filters, I also have a heavy heart. I’ve had mobile phone contracts with cack-handed versions of this applied (and really, could any filter of the web not be cack-handed, by definition?) and it was intensely annoying. I presume it limited me from accessing porn while I was out and about. It also limited me from accessing several websites that have nothing to do with porn, but which had, for some vague reason, been classified as objectionable. I’d turn down universal filters on those grounds alone. I don’t want to be prevented from visiting a site because it has adult content, because, you know, I am an adult.

Deborah Orr has an interesting article in the Guardian today, basically saying that the filters are no big deal, at least theoretically, and there’s a lot in the article that’s worth chewing over. Certainly, it’s not a hugely prominent free speech issue, simply because you can opt in. Rape pornography aside (and, depending on how it’s implemented, I’m not sure that’s a hill many are willing to die on), nothing is being banned outright. But I still have reservations. From Orr’s article:

“In other words, the current situation is awkward for some people who don’t want a portal to porn in the sitting room, while the proposed one would be awkward for some of those who do.

Why should the convenience of the second group be so much more important than the convenience of the first? The implication is that it’s normal to want access to porn, and abnormal not to want access to porn. Yet it’s clear from much of the criticism that using porn is the sort of normality that people have some reservations about sharing with others, even the people most close to them. Why would someone hide a healthy fondness for porn from their sexual partner? The tenor of this whole debate suggests that somehow it’s unfair to put people in a situation where they’re obliged to be an active participant in their quest for porn, when the responsibility for policing porn in the home is currently resting comfortably in the hands of those who would prefer never to think about it at all.”

This argument seems to pivot on the idea that it’s okay to restrict things if there’s no obvious reason to allow them. That is not how I would personally approach things. Explicit hardcore porn is not beamed directly into your home. If somebody chooses to search for it, then I see no prima facie reason – legality of material aside – why they should not be able to find it. Any argument in support of filters should be addressing why that should not be the case. Saying “I don’t want it” is not enough, because you can – you know – opt out.

In short: to ban or limit access to something, you require a reason for doing so; the default state should be unfettered access, and we work from there. Being able to look at something is not the same thing as being able to look at something if you say please, and we lose that distinction to our disadvantage – somewhere down the line, if not now. This is not trivial; it’s important.

The question then becomes: is it worth doing? Is it justifiable? On the face of it, restricting access to online pornography to save the children seems fairly admirable – simply on the basis that, upon being asked “do you want kids to be able to look at porn?” most people would say “No.” And yet both terms cover a lot of ground. While the internet has allowed easy access to the whole spectrum of pornography, it’s hardly a monolith. Yes, you can watch obnoxiously orchestrated and deeply unpleasant hardcore videos – but you can also watch amateur clips of fairly normal people having loving and fairly naturalistic sex. It doesn’t make sense to me to use the same term for both. As a teenager, I saw a fair bit of porn – most of it on grainy VHS, or in magazines found, bizarrely, abandoned and stuffed into tree trunks in woods – and yet somehow I managed to enter my late teens and early twenties without absurd expectations of what women were like, or how to treat them.

This is not to say that attitudes can’t be problematic. But I do think Orr brushes too briefly over things like Page 3, or – say – the Mail’s infamous sidebar of shame, which will not be prohibited by the filters. These things are more subtle and more pernicious, and I’d imagine that the existence of these, along with countless other examples, is more damaging overall to the collective consciousness than the ability to watch a couple (or whatever) of people shagging, however enthusiastically or unrealistically.

Of course, Cameron is never going to restrict access to those things, and never could. I’d suggest these current plans are similarly unworkable and ridiculous, if on a slightly different scale, and I’d be amazed if they are actually implemented. They strike me as gesture politics at best: a simple thing to say to appease people, but which can easily be forgotten and abandoned down the line. Or, to put it another way, a bit of momentary crowd-pleasing headline-grabbing to distract everyone from the people who are really getting fucked.

This entry was posted on Friday, July 26th, 2013 at 8:29 pm and is filed under General, Rant. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


32 Responses to “some thoughts on internet porn filters”

  1. John R Says:

    I’m inclined to agree completely.

    That Orr piece, mind, is barkingly fucking stupid.

    (Example: “Teenagers in puritan households may find themselves unable to access desperately needed information on sexual health. Right; but isn’t it reasonable to assume that the computers in puritan households have filters on them anyway? Children in such households surely do as they have always done – and get their information via other means, or from a peer with more access. If they are so isolated that they can’t do this, then it’s hard to believe that their sexual health is under great threat in any case.”

    BUH? *Really*? Does she not know of the incredible things that can happen in rigidly-controlled social units like this?)

    “The tenor of this whole debate suggests that somehow it’s unfair to put people in a situation where they’re obliged to be an active participant in their quest for porn, when the responsibility for policing porn in the home is currently resting comfortably in the hands of those who would prefer never to think about it at all.”

    The responsibility for policing porn in the home is currently resting in the hands of the owner(s) of the computer in question, and it’s there that any problem lies and should be dealt with. There’s no shortage of filter software people can – and do – choose to install to stop wandering eyeballs seeing the wrong thing. For adults, we also have these weird things called ‘responsibility’ and ‘choice’ and ‘self-control’. I find it very easy to get through the day without the lure of an internet full of scat fetish websites pulling me in, whether because I possess said self-control or because my permanent mescaline coma prevents me using a computer. I imagine Deborah Orr does as well, probably due to the former. If there are people who don’t, not because, hey, scat fetish is their thing and it’s a whole lot less to clean up if you just whack off to it online, but because they have some kind of inbuilt compunction to seek out the bottom of the well, they don’t need an automatic filter: they need help…

  2. John R Says:

    Likewise with parents incapable of educating or keeping an eye on their kids, or men who treat women as objects, or couples where the guy can’t go two days without hitting the rude tubes. These are things that people need to be better at because they reflect other issues or weaknesses in their lives that they could probably benefit from examining and working through. Saying “BAN IT ALL BY DEFAULT” basically throws up one’s hands to the possibility of making us better as a species because fuck it, people can’t be trusted and you’re all just slavering animals.

    (On top of which, it’s still unclear whether it’d be a default ban anyway. That leaked memo from No. 10 that showed ISPs had refused to do it and the Tories were hoping Cameron could still refer to it as ‘default-on’ suggests otherwise.)

    “Even in the highly sexualised public spaces of contemporary Britain, there’s still broad agreement that footage of people humping shouldn’t be up on a screen at Piccadilly Circus. There’s absolutely no reason why the internet should be any different.”

    Yes, yes there is. There’s broad agreement that the screens at Piccadilly Circus shouldn’t show all twenty-nine SAW movies on an endless loop, because it’s a public space (occupied by straw men). There’s nothing stopping me doing that at home, which is where the internet and porn are accessed…

  3. stevemosby Says:

    I’m just going to note that John is having trouble posting his comment, because the third section (he originally submitted it as one; the first two parts are above) appears to be being scrubbed for containing a contentious term. Well, there you go.

  4. John R Says:

    “And as for all the folk saying that the idea is risible, because paedophiles will laugh at it? Dear, God. Don’t we already spend enough time faffing about doing things because the existence of paedophiles obliges it? (I speak as someone who just had to get CRB checked so that I could go camping with my son and his schoolmates. Obviously, I wouldn’t need to be CRB checked if I was planning to wait in the bushes until one of them was on their own and grab them.)”

    Ooh, poor example, given the history of abuse by those with records for such placed in positions of responsibility for children. Since the original aim when all this started, before it went galloping up sexyfilms alley, was simply (for a given value of “simply” to mean “without a hope in hell of achieving anything”) to prevent access to child p, the fact that it will – as all those who’ve commented on it who work in the field attest – do *nothing* because child p networks operate outside the good ol’ WWW is precisely the damn point. Like you say, gesture politics, and the sort of gesture that inevitably leads people to think they’ve “made a difference” and can stop now when in fact they’ve done piss all to help.

    “A lot of the criticism has focused on the practical impossibility of developing adequate filters.”

    She said, then doing nothing then to deny the fact of this criticism.

    And so on and so forth. You could pull it to pieces all day. I’ve not read the comments below, but I imagine people have.

  5. John R Says:

    Well, that was an adventure.

  6. Suw Says:

    Out of curiosity, after the rigmarole John had to go through to post a comment, I’m wondering if it’s just his ISP blocking the use of words like “child p*”, “child abuse”. So we’ll see with this comment! (feel free to delete, Steve).

    (Ok, the P-word results in a 404.)

  7. Suw Says:

    Trying just the porn word.

  8. Suw Says:


  9. Suw Says:

    So it’s just the phrase “child p*” that’s blocked then. Wow, someone, somewhere, really has gotten into this whole thought crime thing. Is it an Akismet thing, I wonder?

  10. Suw Says:

    This is just odd… so what about kiddie fiddling then?

  11. stevemosby Says:

    None of the rejected posts are showing up in my dashboard though. Askimet usually shoves them over to spam, at the very least, if not “to approve”. They’re just not there at all.

  12. stevemosby Says:

    Okay, I’m just going to try this one: child pornography.

  13. stevemosby Says:

    Well, that’s my proudest moment.

  14. Suw Says:

    Child pornography.

  15. John R Says:

    You’ve come a long way, man. It’s like I hardly know you no more.

  16. Suw Says:

    OK, so now that’s worked from here too. How very strange.

  17. John R Says:

    And thinking about it, unless my ISP is somehow flagging not only text but also ‘WordPress Comment’ as context, it can’t be them; I copy and pasted the full comment to Drafts online, and used THE PHRASE THAT MUST NOT BE USED in Twitter with you guys. If Akismet doesn’t IP block, I can only assume it’s the host.

    (I’m writing via proxy, because that’s how you get around blocks and filters on the internet.)

  18. Luca Veste Says:

    In keeping with this comment experiment…

    Kid porn

  19. Luca Veste Says:

    I really don’t want to think about the search terms which will lead to this blog in future…

  20. Suw Says:

    Initially, I tried to post using Anonymouse, and still got the error.

  21. Suw Says:

    Anyone who tries to read these comments without also reading the Twitter conversation is going to think we’re all just a bunch of sick bastards.

  22. Suw Says:

    Right, so, can I still say ‘child pornography’ or will I be blocked again? Only one way to tell…

  23. Luca Veste Says:

    Yeah…might be an idea to delete the further comments. They’ll only end up screengrabbed by some idiot.

  24. John R Says:

    I’ve just mentioned it on Twitter, but for reference, if I stop Tor running I can’t access Steve’s host’s business site. With Tor running, I can. So it’s they who’ve IP blocked me and must be they who have the automatic block filter for THE BAD TERM.

  25. Suw Says:

    OK, so trying through Anonymouse with the Bad Words got a 403/404. Trying through Anonymouse without the Bad Words simply had the comment vanish into nowhere. Not sure if it’s in a spam folder, Steve, but worth a check. I wonder if they think that anonymisers plus Naughty Words must equal Very Bad People. If so, you’re screwed, John.

  26. John R Says:

    Nah. I used THE BAD TERM pre-proxy. And it must give you a few warnings; the 403 I had on Tor hasn’t stopped me accessing the page. It must’ve been the multiple attempts I made to post (since a 403 error is the most unhelpful of all, you might as well try again in case it’s a server hiccup) that did it.

  27. Suw Says:

    But this whole discussion is a beautiful example of why trying to filter on words and phrases is utterly fucking stupid and people who think it will have any impact at all are utterly fucking deranged.

  28. John R Says:

    It’s had an impact all right. I’ve done *no* work at all this evening!

  29. Suw Says:

    For some reason, I now feel like working my way through all the Naughty Words and Phrases I can think of to see if anything else triggers the Nanny. I will, however, save you from the barrage, Steve.

  30. stevemosby Says:

    A summary:

  31. John R Says:

    Footnote: the block appears to have been time-based. I’m allowed back on this morning.

  32. Kelly Robinson Says:

    Simulated rape? So Jodi Foster’s award-winning performance in The Accused qualifies? Seems silly.

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