Don’t panic! But on the other hand, why shouldn’t we have moral panic?

I was lucky enough to talk as a guest on BBC R4’s Bringing up Britain this week. I wasn’t prepared for the full onslaught of opinion loaded towards filtering the Internet wherever possible.

You can listen on iPlayer. Mariella starts by quoting the Psychologies Magazine study, claiming that 12-17 year olds are the biggest consumers of pornography; a study largely discredited as it was based on a survey of children in a single North London school.

Claire Perry MP and the Deputy Children’s Commissioner Sue Berelowitz then led the charge, alongside psychotherapist John Woods and Leonie Hodge from Family Lives.

I am sure that the concerns that these well educated and expert people express do have some basis in reality. At the least, it is certainly concerning that adult sexual material is easy for children to access, and it may well be that some young people suffer harm as a result.

However, the evidence is difficult and the social effects are complicated. Children do not report these problems as being as significant as their parents do, and it may also be that we are looking at the issue through the prism of the people who seem to have been worst affected.

As we see with many social issues, from copyright infringement, to drug abuse or alcoholism, it’s not always wise to design policies and laws that affect everyone equally from the point of view of the worst affected, or the minority whose behaviour is unwanted. Hard cases make bad law. Often it is better to deal with the problems directly instead.

Nevertheless, one might assume that the one thing we really do not need is moral panic of the kind engendered by the Daily Mail. Indeed, at the end of the programme Sue Berelowitz agreed with me – and then didn’t. She said:

“We had a reference made earlier to there shouldn’t be a moral panic. Nobody should be panicking, but in a sense the question I would put back is, ‘Why shouldn’t there be a moral panic?’ because what we are uncovering is that the scale of what this is doing to children and their sense of what is reasonable …if that doesn’t generate some sense of moral anxiety … then quite frankly I would be very worried.

I’m not sure that’s really a call for level-headed analysis.

Claire also gave some helpful advice. Responding to the suggestion I made (cut in the broadcast edit) that the people advocating Internet filters were looking for a porn off-switch, and there wasn’t one, Claire, slightly mistaking me, said:

I take issue with the idea that the Internet can never be switched off. Yes it can, just turn off the router in your home.

Hm. I guess that may work in homes that have no neighbours sharing wifi and no 3G coverage, in some Devizes mobile blackspot. I’m less sure about homes in Islington. Still, as a means to implement a porn block, switching off the Internet entirely does seem a little drastic.

Lastly, Mariella Frostrup made reference to the German system, which she stated required citizens to register at a post office if they wanted access to pornography.

“I’m quite interested in the German system which I believe means you have to opt in, that you have to go down to the post office and register if you want to receive pornography and take responsibility … for your viewing habits”.

In this she is – it seems – somewhat mistaken. According to evidence (PDF, paras 322 and 325) given to the Culture Media and Sport Committee, Germans offer an age verification tool, from post offices, the use of which includes access to German regulated porn sites. Non German websites are not required to use the system, and the result appears to have been relocation of domestic porn producers abroad.

The real lesson from Germany may well be that regulations can do the opposite of what you intend.

The section discussing Iceland was cut, no doubt because by the time to programme was aired, Iceland had dropped their plans to block extreme pornography. A shame the timing didn’t allow a better discussion of why that had happened.

I was left with a feeling that discussion remains polarized and open to people advocating ill-thought out measures.

The Open Rights Group, which I work for, was told this week that all major UK providers are going to provide network filtering tools, despite the ease of circumvention and bluntness of their whole-household filtering.

ORG has previously noted the dangers with network filtering, from the ease of adding censorship through to unnecessary data collection and illegal interception. This is taking place without legislation of course: it’s at least in part a reaction by ISPs designed to avoid new regulations.

DCMS officials ORG spoke to were at least receptive to our calls to deal with the problems filtering is creating for the Open Internet and businesses seeking customers and wishing to correct blocking errors.

However, the reaction of ISPs to government threats of legislation doesn’t feel particularly democratic and accountable, nor very well thought out.

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