New internet security legislation is being presented as child protection, in reality it's an attempt to further restrict freedom of expression for the wider public argues Anita de Klerk
Over the last week we have seen two significant developments in internet security as the Serious Crime Bill makes its way through parliament. The first is the banning of BDSM (Bondage Discipline and SadoMasochism) from the internet in UK pornography, ‘in-line’ with the controls already in place with ‘off-line’ retailers, and the second is the tightening up of legislation to protect children against predatory paedophiles.
Unless you are a predatory paedophile or member of the BDSM community you may well argue that these laws are not a bad thing. After all they are aimed at protecting the most vulnerable in society. But is that the true picture or is there more to this story?
Protecting children online
In his speech at the We Protect Children Online Summit in London, Cameron revealed new measures in the way the government will be tackling those who use the internet to view and share illegal images of children and said “we are going to go after these people with every bit of effort that we go after terrorists and other international criminals”.
Cameron said the battle was being, and would continue to be, "fought on three fronts: blocking search results that lead to child abuse; identifying illegal images and taking them down; and chasing down the perpetrators and enforcing the law”.
The Home Secretary, Teresa May added that giving law enforcement agencies access to communications data was absolutely vital to disrupting networks of paedophiles.
Over the last year, according to the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), there has been a marked increase in the number of indecent images that have been removed from the internet - they reported a 109% increase in their removal compared to 2013.
Cameron applauded Google, Microsoft and Mozilla and said that they had gone “above and beyond” what was asked of them and that their ability to block and control internet content was a “game changer”.
However, these kind of measures are not only being used in areas where there is widespread political consensus, but in areas that are much more politically disputed like counter-terrorism where civil liberties are much more obviously under threat.
As part of the protection of children online agenda, last week Cameron detailed the government’s plan to remove BDSM from pornography in the UK, describing the practice as depraved, abhorrent and extreme. It is important to note here that this legislation only affects the ‘paid-for-porn’ industry in the UK and does not affect that which can be viewed from other countries and is easily accessed through the internet.
The BDSM referred to in this legislation is that which is practiced by two (or more) consenting adults, who have agreed to the recording and not pornography that is non-consensual which is already illegal.
This legislation is an attempt to criminalise sexual expression, but not all of it. It is an attempt to mute certain aspects of adult fantasy and kink under the hoodwinking of what is acceptable for children to see, as either corruptible or non-corruptible pornography, by deliberately conflating consensual sex between adults with the sexual exploitation of minors.
Speaking at the Face-Sitting protest outside parliament last Friday, Jerry Barnett (campaigner for free expression and the founder of Sex & Censorship) said:
“This isn't really about pornography, porn is an excuse to censor free speech. People shouldn't get too hung up about this sex act or that sex act being banned - they'll block them one at a time - what this is about is creating the mechanism for internet censorship. We need to stand up and fight for free speech. It's a job not just for kinksters and the porn industry, the public needs to become aware too.”
It is very clear to see that this is not about the protection of children from pornography, but is very much a stamping of morality and hetronormative judgment on what is deemed as acceptable pornography. After all, pornography that may contain scenes of male teachers having sex with ‘school girls’ has not been banned at all.
As part of the Counter Terrorism and Serious Crime Bill, the UK government is planning to implement these same measures in tackling extremism and home grown terrorism with the aim to ‘stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism’.
One of the new measures (similar to that proposed at the We Protect Children Online Summit) is the introduction of a specific police ‘task-force’ to tackle the distribution of terrorist propaganda via the internet. The role of this task-force is to gather information gained from service providers, in order to identify ‘terror’ suspects, from our Internet Protocol (IP) addresses via our personal computers and hand held devices.
This legislation will give the police powers to request information from internet service providers who will be required to hold onto records for 12 months.
According to Teresa May, speaking on the Andrew Marr Show; “This is a step, but it doesn’t go all the way to ensuring that we can identify all the people we will need to”.
She went on to say that in order for the police to “fully identify” everybody they would need access to all our communications data, as was previously proposed in the Communications Data Bill, which proposed a blanket surveillance of the entire population.
The previous attempt, through the Communications Data Bill, was made by the Home Office earlier this year to introduce a wide ranging internet monitoring programme, but was blocked by campaigners who criticised it as a ‘snooper’s charter’.
James Massey, chairman of the Internet Service Providers Association, said that in reality these proposals would end up targeting people who post “annoying and not very nice” things on Facebook, Twitter and other social media and do nothing in combating those who know how to hide their internet usage.
These ‘new’ measures will not deter people from producing or searching for literature or images. What they will do is force these practices underground and out of the public domain where they cannot be challenged, either through education or rehabilitation. It simply a licence for the various crime fighting authorities to target individuals in propping up the West’s ‘war on terror’ agenda.
Spain’s new gagging law
Child abuse, terrorism and alternative sexual practices are not new. Nor are they caused by or on the increase since the introduction of the internet. They will continue to exist and be practiced, as they were in the past. The use of these particular subjects to introduce new legislation on internet censorship is to prepare us for further controls and restrictions and is being sold to us as protection.
Evidence of where this might lead can be seen in Spain today. Last Thursday, the ruling People’s Party of Spain, agreed to new draft legislation which criminalises public demonstrations, the production and sharing of videos and images on the internet of demonstrations in opposition to the ruling party, and the response of the police in restoring social control.
The draft legislation will introduce fines of up to €30 000 for actions deemed to insult the state, burning of the flag, holding protests outside parliament which may cause serious disturbances, demonstrations that interfere with electoral processes and unauthorised protests at airports and nuclear power plants. The supposed purpose of the legislation is to ‘protect’ the public.
Since the economic crash in 2008 Spain has imposed harsh austerity measures and cutbacks on its population, similar to those in the rest of Europe. This has resulted in large anti-austerity protests across most Spanish cities – most of which have been non-violent.
In order for the UK to get to the point that Spain has found herself; first we need to accept that censorship is tolerable for our own protection. The danger is that after acceptance has been gained we hand over our right of expression and our ability to fight back.
The point here is not whether or not children should be protected from internet predators, exposure to images that you may deem inappropriate or to individuals who don’t use their real names on Facebook.
Of course children need protecting (and there are a plethora of software that can protect your personal devises to limit or block internet content), but by handing over internet protection as a responsibility of the state we open up a can of worms that we will never be able to put a lid on.
The battle over freedom of expression has implications beyond that which is published on the internet. What it is really about is the bigger picture. A picture where mass collective thought and expression are being tampered with and squashed, as an easy sell through the use of subject matter that is (mostly) removed from the daily lives of the majority, as a mystification for what is to come. It is a start on the attack of our freedom as individuals to express our thoughts through our networks.
If the UK were to follow Spain, having given our consent to censorship as a necessary evil to protect our children, we will be giving up our right to protest and express our anger over the UK’s involvement in another war in the Middle East, austerity, racism, police brutality and the removal of our collective voice.
We salute the face sitters in their actions against restrictive expression, but we too need to expose the truth of what is really going on here – we will not be gagged. And where best to express it than in the realm of virtual reality!
Anita de Klerk is a lecturer in Criminology and Criminal Justice Policy, Marxist activist and founder of the People's Flotilla Against Austerity.
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