Friday, February 27, 2015

Should online pornography be banned?

Adults in Britain often appear to have differing attitudes when it comes to pornography. Many may shun it altogether. Others may occasionally buy a top shelf magazine or flick through late night adult programming on television. But for most people wanting to access pornography, the Internet has become the main medium to access such content.

But while there are easily applied and more robust controls concerning magazines, DVDs and broadcast content, there is almost no way to stop access to online pornography for children.

Such ease of access to pornography has prompted parents, politicians and even celebrities to call for curbs on what many say is a corrupting influence.

Restricting access

Whilst some websites showing adult content make an attempt to restrict access to under age persons the method employed simply requires the Internet user to press a button. Indeed most online pornography websites often 'trust' in the 'honesty' of a user to click a "Yes" or "No" to the question "Are you over 18" in order to access such sites or navigate away.

Such age verification in the form of asking site visitors whether they're old enough to legally access the content is pointless. How many lusty 13-year-olds are going to answer truthfully?

Should such simplistic hurdles be applied to television, magazines or DVD purchases there would quite rightly be a public outcry. Yet when there is ever the suggestion of tightening access to online pornography there are suggestions of censorship, an attack on freedom or that one is entering a nanny state.

Nonetheless there is a growing tide of discontent, especially amongst parents that little or nothing is being done to protect children from inappropriate online content.

Difficult task

It is no easy task to block such content. Various search engines offer sophisticated filtering methods to stop content getting through. This is not foolproof however, and does not stop a user entering a web address directly.

Both Google and Bing allow the setting of safe search filters though these may be circumvented simply by opening an 'incognito' window in the Chrome browser for example, or even using a different browser altogether.

To be truly effective pornography needs to be stopped even before it enters the home. Therefore some Internet Service Providers have begun to employ their own filtering and begun blocking content even before it arrives in someone's browser.

This opt-in approach has been suggested by the British prime minister David Cameron many times over the last few years [BBCGuardian]. But his proposal to force ISPs to block pornography by default was widely criticised by the tabloid press despite his claims that access to online pornography was "corroding childhood".

Even the more serious broadsheets labelled the move as "censorship creep" and questioned how far the restrictions might go [Guardian].

But while new laws forcing ISPs to block content were effectively shelved, some of Britain's top broadband providers have voluntarily decided to implement filters with customers needing to make a request to have them removed [tvnewswatch: UK govt reject Internet porn blocks].

ISPs begin opt-in approach

In January Sky announce it was to phase in filtering for all customers applying its so-called Sky Broadband Shield which would block all content deemed unsuitable for persons under the age of 13 [Sky / BBC / tvnewswatch: UK ISPs line up to block pornography].

Meanwhile TalkTalk said it too was following suit and would apply a block to all users' accounts, unless they had already opted out of such blocks. Customers would then have to ask TalkTalk to allow pornographic websites to be visited through their Internet connection.

Meanwhile BT said it was contacting its customers to ask them whether they want to have the tool introduced. Virgin Media, which was the last of the major UK ISPs to offer filtering tools, has yet to make the decision to apply them by default [BBC].

Websites change approach

It is not just the ISPs who are beginning to react to government and public concerns over pornography. Some web firms have also changed their approach to hosting such content.

In mid-February the search giant Google announced that it would ban pornographic content on its Blogger platform and make all sites containing such material private [BBC / Guardian / Telegraph / Daily Mail].

And within days of Google's announcement the forum website Reddit also said they would begin to clamp down on those that posted explicit images, though only those they deemed to be "stolen" and posted without the owner's consent [Telegraph / Daily Mail].

There has also been much debate as to whether Twitter, Flickr and Tumblr should also clean up their act. Google's decision to clean up Blogger reportedly prompted many sex bloggers to migrate to Tumblr which is already saturated with pornographic content [Mirror].  

Meanwhile there have been calls for Twitter to purge their platform of the pornography that accounts for more than 500,000 sexual images posted per day, according to a Channel 4 investigation [Channel Four News / Metro].

Twitter have said they have no plans to change their policy, and Google made a U-turn on their decision to ban adult content after what it called "a ton of feedback" [BBC].  

Difficult task

Removing such content from the web or effectively blocking access to it is far from easy.

Automatic filtering software may block most inappropriate material but some pictures may also slip through.

Filters may also block legitimate websites too. Indeed since an automatic filter may not differentiate between the word 'sex' and a word containing the same three letters, some innocent websites have found themselves blocked.

A girl guides website in Essex was just one of many innocent websites blocked by BT's filters, presumably because of the word "girls" and "sex". Meanwhile Talk to Frank, a website that helps educate young people about drugs, was found blocked by mobile network Three [ExpertReviews]. 

In order to prevent overzealous blocking the British government is said to be drawing up a list of sites inadvertently blocked by such filters [BBC].

Many sites on the list are run by charities that aim to educate children and others about health, sex education and drugs issues.

By creating a so-called white list, alongside a black-list of websites, ISPs would be able to filter content more effectively.

But a problem still exists especially where inappropriate content is posted on social networks.

Recently it was discovered that hardcore pornography had been posted on YouTube and was effectively hidden from filters because those that posted the content used unusual keywords [Daily Mail].

Such issues are a major problem for web companies. As already discussed age verification is a nonsense unless qualified with appropriate identity checks which would likely draw criticism from privacy advocates.

And for companies themselves to vet every single post is an almost impossible task. Pictures are particularly difficult to filter out. Twitter for example would have to look through as many as 25 million images a day if it wanted to weed out sexual imagery and other offensive content.

Growing concerns

Kids and porn is an issue that's certainly not going away [Channel Four News]. And while parents are taking steps to prevent their children accessing such material, it's not just kids that are at risk.

In fact one top UK judge made headlines this year after saying that "extreme pornography" caused rapists and murderers to commit crimes.

Lord Chief Justice Thomas of Cwmgiedd made the comments after presiding over two disturbing criminal cases, where both defendants claimed extreme pornography had influenced their actions [Telegraph].

There are also concerns of a rise in so-called porn-addiction. It's a loaded subject. Opponents argue that it can ruin marriages, lead to sexual addiction or other unhealthy behaviours, and encourage sexual aggression. Advocates meanwhile insist that erotica can enhance sex lives, provide a safe recreational outlet and perhaps even reduce the incidence of sexual assault.

But there is a growing feeling that there is far too much pornography, both soft and hardcore, invading all corners of life.

One unlikely critic this week posted a video on YouTube describing pornography as "icebergs of filth floating through every house" due to the introduction of WiFi [Metro].

However, this wasn't a Tory MP or a message from a child protection society. This was a statement from comedian Russell Brand who likened pornography to a narcotic.

In the video, made for Fight The New Drug campaign "dedicated to educating and raising awareness on the harmful effects of pornography using only science, facts, and personal accounts," Brand discusses the pitfalls of pornography and why he would never watch it if he had full control over his body.

Whilst Brand stops short of calling for a ban on porn, he like many others raises the question concerning the saturation of sexual imagery in our society.

There is no immediate solution but it is perhaps clear that the war on pornography is heating up.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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