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Pornography and digital rights

Public debate needs to take proper account of the risks of internet filters, imposed by the state or private companies, in trying to restrict access to online pornography.

One of the internet’s most awe-inducing features is its ability to serve up whatever piece of content you need, whenever you need it. Whether you’re looking for videos of cats riding Roombas, the translated poetry of Goethe or the song of a nightingale, the internet, thanks to the incredible resources of the world wide web, will dish up whatever you’re after. Of course, insofar as online content mirrors our offline imperfections, it’s equally easy to find less salubrious material. As with many other technologies before it, the internet has provided a new platform for pornographic content, and whatever your sexual predilections, you will find an ample store of online content to meet every desire.

Unsurprisingly, this leads to no small degree of social and political concern, and the UK is currently engaged in an emotive debate as to how best we might balance individual rights to protection from legal but ‘harmful’ online content against rights to sexual freedom and freedom of information or expression. What makes this issue even more controversial is the rather unhelpful tendency of both politicians and media to portray the conflict as one between children’s rights to protection, and adults’ rights to consume pornography. Since 2011 the UK government has sought to drive through a policy of household-level internet filtering, whereby individuals or families signing up to new broadband contracts would be required to either accept default filtering of online content or explicitly opt in to receive adult material. Announcing the roll-out of such measures in 2013, David Cameron argued, ‘this is, quite simply, about how we protect our children and their innocence’. Put this way, it’s hard to see how anyone could disagree with the premise of filtering out pornographic and other adult content from home internet connections. Unfortunately, the matter is not quite so clear-cut.

Literary and visual depictions of sexual congress have long raised conflicting societal opinions. Although the first UK conviction for obscenity didn’t arise until 1727, erotic and pornographic texts were distributed, often in other languages, for a long time before this. Samuel Pepys apparently recorded his shame and disgust on discovering the contents of a book, “L’Ecole des Femmes’ which he bought for his young wife, although apparently not so ashamed that he didn’t buy himself a copy several weeks later. Even Oxford has seen its fair share of controversy. The 1964 book, ‘A History of Pornography’ recalls efforts by some gentlemen of All Souls College in 1674 to surreptitiously reprint erotic drawings using the Oxford University Press. The early return of the Press’s manager, Dr John Fell, brought a halt to this plan and the would-be pornographers barely escaped expulsion.

Such historical examples remind us that UK society has been wrestling with moral and political questions of how to deal with pornography for nearly 400 years. In the intervening period it’s an issue which has been subject to numerous pieces of legislation regulating access to pornographic material in all its forms, from the Licensing Act 1737 (for plays) to the Obscene Publications Acts and the Video Recordings Act 1984. Such legislation has tended both to delimit what can be published and to set (age-limited) conditions for who can access it. In this context, the UK government’s efforts to introduce household-level filtering could be seen as no more than appropriate efforts to ensure consistent application of already-agreed principles. There are, however, some crucial differences which make the question of how best to balance individual rights and interests far more difficult in the case of digital content.

The most important point concerns access to information. One of the apparent benefits of the internet is that it enables individuals to search for and access material or information they might otherwise be embarrassed or ashamed to seek out in a shop or library. Whilst this may on the one hand fuel concerns about possible growth in the use of illegal pornographic content such as that depicting children or animals, it is also the same feature that allows a nervous or embarrassed teen to look for much-needed information about sexual identity or practices. The latter is a fundamental point. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child recognizes that those under the age of 18 often need special protection, but vitally, they also “have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kind…”.

Of course, it’s often argued that filters will only block specific, delimited content, distinguishing, for example, between legitimate sex education materials and potentially harmful or even illegal pornography. Unfortunately this is wildly optimistic, and it is usual for filters to both over-block (filter out material that wouldn’t fall under the defined category of content) and under-block (miss instances of material supposed to be filtered). Early teething trouble with the UK system led to reports of up to 20% of the most popular websites being blocked, and concerns remain that the lack of transparency may mean that important educational resources continue to be falsely blocked. Unaccountable algorithmic filtering is far less sensitive than the trained hand of a librarian or state censor.

And let’s not forget that the consumption of legal pornography by adults is just that – legal. Just as children have rights to freedom of expression and information, so do adults. Pornography can play a role in personal sexual expression and fulfilment, development and maintenance of romantic and sexual relationships, whilst in an increasingly sexualized culture the line between pornography and entertainment in music videos, film and drama is now very difficult to draw. And whilst we now know that our government might be keeping a check of all our online activity, it’s quite another matter to have to go on the record with your ISP (and possibly your spouse) that you want access to pornography. We should all balk at the idea of the state intervening in the most private aspects of our sexual identity and expression, but is it much more acceptable to have private sheriffs police our bedrooms or decide what children should or shouldn’t see?

Perhaps the last and most sensitive argument concerns the assumption that pornography is harmful. There is a wealth of academic research on this issue, but given limitations of both research ethics and methodology, it is all but impossible to prove any sort of causal link. As Jo Fidgen puts it in her blog for Oxford’s FreeSpeechDebate, ‘Anyone who says pornography causes anything is dressing opinion up as fact.’ There is also evidence to suggest that parental over-reliance on restrictive measures such as filters can itself be problematic, both by limiting children’s opportunities to develop a full range of digital skills, and by making it less likely they develop resilience in dealing with online risks. This certainly doesn’t mean we should immediately remove all internet filters: the precautionary principle suggest that caution in the face of uncertain harm is perfectly justifiable and filters remain an important tool in the repertoire of parenting interventions, especially for very young children. But what it does mean is that any state-imposed policy measures must be proportionate and well-considered, and that where possible, decisions to filter or censor should ultimately be taken by parents and children rather than the state or self-appointed private sheriffs.

This article was first published at Politics in Spires.

About the author

Victoria Nash is the Oxford Internet Institute's Deputy Director and Policy and Research Fellow. She is currently researching online child safety and protection.

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