I don’t like Laurie Penny, I’ve made that clear already, or the fact that she has somehow become the ‘face’ of feminism in the left-leaning and liberal press.
I have already said on this blog that I am concerned that internet filters may block sex education etc. sites; I would have no real problem with an opt-in/out porn filter that was genuinely just that, but as reported by Penny, that is not going to be the case.
Also, while I’m posting part of her article below, I don’t agree with all of it; limiting hate-speech against women – pornography – is no more social control than limiting other kinds of hate speech, the freedom to consume pornography comes at the expense of women and children (and men) to be free from harm.
Also there is evidence of the harm caused by pornography, especially of it warping young people’s ideas about sex, and young women’s body image (the increase in cosmetic labiaplasty for example). It’s difficult to research pornography’s link to sexual violence directly, because it would be impossible ethically speaking to show men violent pornography, then ask them to keep a record of the sexual violence they commit.
The government’s filter, which comes into full effect this month after a year of lobbying, will block far more than dirty pictures. That was always the intention, and in recent weeks it has become clear that the mission creep of internet censorship is even creepier than campaigners had feared. In the name of protecting children from a rotten tide of raunchy videos, a terrifying precedent is being set for state control of the digital commons.
Pious arguments about protecting innocence are invariably marshalled in the service of public ignorance. When the first opt-in filtering began, it was discovered that non-pornographic “gay and lesbian” sites and “sex education” content would be blocked by BT. After an outcry, the company quickly changed the wording on its website, but it is not clear that more than the wording has been changed. The internet is a lifeline for young LGBT people looking for information and support – and parents are now able to stop them finding that support at the click of a mouse.
Sexual control and social control are usually co-occurring. Sites that were found to be inaccessible when the new filtering system was launched last year included in some cases helplines like Childline and the NSPCC, domestic violence and suicide prevention services – and the thought of what an unscrupulous parent or abusive spouse could do with the ability to block such sites is chilling. The head of TalkTalk, one of Britain’s biggest internet providers, claimed that the internet has no “social or moral framework”. Well, neither does a library. Nobody would dream of insisting a local book exchange deployed morality robots to protect children from discovering something their parents might not want them to see. Online, that’s just what’s happening, except that in this case, every person who uses the internet is being treated like a child.
Every argument we have heard from politicians in favour of this internet filter has been about pornography, and its harmful effect on young people, evidence of which, despite years of public pearl-clutching, remains scant. It is curious, then, that so many categories included in BT’s list of blocked content appear to be neither pornographic nor directly related to young children.
The category of “obscene content”, for instance, which is blocked even on the lowest setting of BT’s opt-in filtering system, covers “sites with information about illegal manipulation of electronic devices [and] distribution of software” – in other words, filesharing and music downloads, debate over which has been going on in parliament for years. It looks as if that debate has just been bypassed entirely, by way of scare stories about five-year-olds and fisting videos. Whatever your opinion on downloading music and cartoons for free, doing so is neither obscene nor pornographic.
Cameron’s porn filter looks less like an attempt to protect kids than a convenient way to block a lot of content the British government doesn’t want its citizens to see, with no public consultation whatsoever.
The worst thing about the porn filter, though, is not that it accidentally blocks a lot of useful information but that it blocks information at all. With minimal argument, a Conservative-led government has given private firms permission to decide what websites we may and may not access. This sets a precedent for state censorship on an enormous scale – all outsourced to the private sector, of course, so that the coalition does not have to hold up its hands to direct responsibility for shutting down freedom of speech.
More worrying still is the inclusion of material relating to “extremism”, however the state and its proxies are choosing to define that term. Bearing in mind that simple protest groups like tax justice organisation UK Uncut have been labelled extremist by some, there is every chance that the categories for what constitutes “inappropriate” online content will be conveniently broad – and there’s always room to extend them. The public gets no say over what political content will now be blocked, just as we had no say over whether we wanted such content blocked at all.
Many lesbians report having been tomboys in their youth, but so do the great majority of women who go on to be heterosexual. The process of transitioning from the condition in which a girl may play with boys, use her strong body in physical activities and give no thought to how she looks, to ‘femininity’ in which she must learn to walk in crippling shoes and constraining clothes and constantly paint and check her face to ensure that her mask is intact, is a harsh one and likely to cause… ‘self-consciousness and nerves’. Their mothers, girls’ and women’s magazines, and their friends, train them and there is much to learn… Girls have to practice femininity until it feels ‘natural’ in order to create ‘sexual difference’
Sheila Jeffreys, Beauty and Misogyny