The Great British tradition of forcing through bad laws with a combination of manipulated hysteria and biased research from prohibitionist organisations.
And so the UK government have finally set a date for the first step in their great experiment in censoring the internet to begin. July 15th sees the launch of age verification for all* porn sites – something that we’ve discussed the pointlessness and repressiveness of before – and as with many a government censorship scheme, it has been helpfully backed up by a newly released study from a compliant and supportive organisation. In this case, it’s populist pressure group Internet Matters, who put their cards on the table in the government press release, as their CEO Carolyn Bunting gushed “we are delighted to see the government tackling the issue of online pornography”. Their research, released entirely un-coincidentally at the same time as the government announcement, is grandly titled Impact of Seeing Pornography on Children – Parental Concerns and has been announced as though it is the last word in thorough examination of the facts. But it’s not research at all – it’s an opinion poll, based on fears that are not backed up with evidence of any sort, and the whole thing has been summed up in a one-page PDF (check it out below). Is this the level of evidence that the government are now basing policy on?
Internet Matters cunningly try to skew the findings – the press release headline is “1 in 3 parents concerned their children will become addicted to pornography”; a more accurate headline might be ‘two-thirds of parents not at all concerned that their children will become addicted to pornography’, but that doesn’t have the same punch. And let’s not even get into the uncomfortable facts that concerns are rarely based on a realistic assessment of dangers and that porn addiction is a myth spread by greedy therapists, with no scientific basis to back it up.
But the interesting thing here is that the findings do not even show massive concern about the impact of porn at all. the best figures they have are 52% agreeing (and let’s go out on a limb here and say that parents were presented with questions and then asked if they agreed or not, rather than spontaneously expressing concerns) that “a child may believe online pornography represents typical sex.” If all the arguing over Brexit has taught us anything, it’s that 52% is not an overwhelming figure to base policy on. And ‘may believe’ is not the same as ‘will believe’ or even ‘is likely to believe’.
It gets worse – the figures for concern drop from 48% thinking that porn is ‘improper’ sex education (not that porn sets out to be sex education, but never mind) to just 27% – a quarter – saying that it encourages poor self-esteem. Yet the government’s press release actually refers to these as “top concerns”.
This was a survey of 2044 parents – but we’re not told what questions they were asked, how old their children were and (there is mention at one point of an age range between four and sixteen, though surely the concerns about a four-year old’s viewing habits will be rather different from those of a sixteen-year old’s), what age the imaginary child that the parents are being asked questions about is, or how the respondents came to be questioned, i.e. was it a self-selecting group answering an online survey or a public questionnaire. All this matters.
If a fatuous opinion poll carried by a moralising campaign group – one where most parents don’t even see a problem with body image, portrayal of women, understanding of consent or pretty much anything else – is the best evidence the government have to justify censoring the internet, then I think we all know why they are really pushing this law through. And it has nothing whatsoever with protecting children, and everything to do with trying to grasp control back over the Wild West of the web.
* As with many a badly thought out law, what will and won’t be included remains to be seen. At present, the rules apparently apply to ‘commercial’ porn sites – so perhaps if you don’t charge to view and don’t have advertising or any other money-making scheme on your site, you are exempt (don’t take our word for that, though). It apparently only applies if more than a third of your content is pornographic – so Twitter and Reddit won’t be affected (yet). And no one quite seems clear about what level of pornography it covers – is it just hardcore, or is software also outlawed? And if so, what level of software? Simulated sex, full nudity, bare breasts? The BBFC have even referenced the need to classify written material, even though it is specifically excluded from the law. It’s good to know that a law that comes into force in less than three months is so well defined and understood.
UPDATE: As we now know, The Great Porn Block failed to happen, as a rare moment of realisation saw the idea kicked into the long grass. But with more widespread plans to control and censor the entire internet still in progress, any sighs of relief may prove to be wildly premature.
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