OFCOM’s Online Nation: Reinventing Harm

The latest OFCOM report attempts to hype the dangers of unfettered thought online, but can’t hide the fact that viewing porn is now increasingly the norm.

OFCOM, gearing up to be the organisation responsible for implementing the UK government’s appalling Online Harms Bill once it becomes law, have today issued a report into British internet habits (as they were in September 2020) called Online Nation. Much of this – based, as all these things are, on a survey rather than any sort of peer-reviewed research methodology – is disposable faff about which websites are the most popular, what sort of content is viewed most by whom and so on. It’s not until page 40 that things become a bit more contentious, as the report explores “online harms and attitudes towards regulation.” Sharper readers can probably guess where this is going, so buckle up.

“Nearly half of internet users disagreed that people should be allowed to say what they want online” gloats a headline, as the report digs into free speech. the statement that correspondents were asked to agree or disagree with, and which you may or may not think is a touch loaded, was “I think it is it is important that people can say what they want online even if it is controversial or hurtful to others. This is, to say the least, vague and rather fudges the issues of harm vs hurt, which I would argue are very different things.

Three in five also agreed that Internet users must be protected from seeing inappropriate or offensive content”, though quite how that would be achieved is not expanded on, and how we define those emotive but nebulous terms is also brushed under the carpet. Are we talking about content warnings or blanket censorship? Who decides what is ‘inappropriate and offensive’?

76% of people surveyed claimed to have been exposed to “at least one potential harm”, which is the sort of dramatic but meaningless statement that the press and politicians love to pick up on as evidence that ‘something must be done. A ‘potential’ harm is not an actual harm though, and among the ‘harms’ listed are “upsetting pictures/videos”, “offensive or upsetting language” and “alternative viewpoints/theories”. I would argue that none of these things harm anyone, and the very idea that being exposed to a different opinion (and we are not talking about misinformation or hate speech, both of which have their own categories) is a legitimate concern is frankly terrifying. That OFCOM is taking this seriously as a ‘harm’ hardly bodes well for their reign controlling what we can see or say.

Let’s be clear – there is a huge difference between being upset or made to feel uncomfortable and being harmed. I know that the cultural shift is to pretend otherwise, but life is not a cocoon and if we encourage people to believe that being exposed to alternative ideas, seeing an image that is upsetting or coming across an offensive word is actually harming them, it is not going to create a healthy world. Once you let that genie out of the bottle, anyone and everyone will use it, as we are seeing already, and that simply creates more division and distrust.

Buried further down the report – starting at page 100 – is the first official look at UK viewers and porn. To the surprise of no one, 49% of British people visited an adult site in September 2020 – and one in three UK adults visited PornHub. The figures break down to 50% of males and 16% of females, though given that this was, again, a public survey, we might suspect that these figures are underestimates – the figures for 18 – 24 are 75%/33%, and older respondents – especially female ones – might well have been a bit more embarrassed about accurately reporting their porn habits. OnlyFans, meanwhile, experienced a 76% increase in content creators in 2020 – hardly a surprise.

What OFCOM don’t discuss is how the fact that porn is so clearly part of the UK mainstream tallies with the oft-discussed claim that it is a major cause for concern that needs tackling. As we’ve seen time and time again, the hysteria surrounding porn is fuelled by a small but vocal group of moral and political campaigners and hyped as reflecting public opinion by their media allies. Perhaps the payment processors and sites like Patreon, Paypal and so on that the report points out ban adult content should think again – not only are they acting on often malicious and false information, but they are clearly not even reflecting the needs of their own customers. Sure, some people might close accounts if you allow porn – but they are a small minority and you actually risk alienating more people by enforcing the moral certainties of cranks.

OFCOM, of course, is part of that crank army, and will soon be on a mission to tell us all why we need them to step in and control what we see – for our own good, of course, because we can’t be trusted to make our own decisions. We’ll see more fudged studies where people are nudged towards giving the ‘right’ answer through leading questions, more apocryphal stories of harm and corruption, more uncontested claims that adult sites awash with violence, rape, revenge-porn, under-age images and other illegal content and more dubious correlations between adult content and real-life crime. We know that this is all untrue, and so do those saying it – but no one wants to stand up for porn because they think that porn remains a dirty little secret shame, enjoyed by a small number of perverts and misfits. If you’ve ever be cowed into silence through shame, this study at least serves one useful purpose – you know that, in fact, you’re part of the majority, and the weirdos are the people who never watch porn. Be loud, be proud, and don’t let the bastards take away your rights to appease the delicate feelings of the instantly offended and immediately upset.

DAVID FLINT

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