This past week in the UK has not been a good one for civil liberties. First, the Investigatory Powers Act received Royal Assent. The the Digital Economy Bill passed through the Commons without a vote.
If you’ve been unaware of either, that isn’t surprising. The UK media have been somewhat muted on the subject, preferring to comment after the fact. It’s a strange swerve from the furor that broke out over Labour’s scrapped ID-card programme.
The ID-card programme was criticised as being a hugely expensive invasion of privacy. Yet, somehow, these two draconian acts have not been condemned in nearly the same way despite being far more invasive, and massively more expensive to implement. Curious.
Under the IPA, your data is recorded. Under the DEB, your Internet is censored.
The Pry Minister
Under the Investigatory Powers Act (IPA), the government will order “communications providers” to collect and store information about every website visited, text message sent and received, email, phone call etc. Your entire digital life will be collected by the government, just in case they need it. The government argues that privacy is at the heart of this act, warning of severe penalties for those who access data without reason to do so. However, having provided around forty agencies, including the ambulance service and Food Standards Agency, the right to access data without a warrant, I find these claims suspect.
There’s various problems with this law. For example, while for some crazy reason you may trust the government now, what about the next government, or the one after that? Let’s link this to the Digital Economy Bill (DEB). Under the DEB, the BBFC (British Board of Film Classification/British Board of Fascist Censorship – take your pick) will be rating websites and content under the terms of the Audiovisual Media Services Regulations Act (AVMS). You may remember the AVMS provoked a facesitting protest outside government offices in 2014. The AVMS forced British pornographers to stop producing content that featured a number of sexual acts, whether consensual or not, that could “corrupt or deprave”, were considered “obscene” or could cause “harm”.
The problem is “harm” in this context is a vague term because we’re not talking about actual evidence of harm – we’re talking about the possibility of harm. Take facesitting for example – if you’re doing it right, you’re no more likely to suffocate than you are if you’re sleeping on your back after a night of heavy drinking. Yet because there is, apparently, a possibility of harm, people should not be permitted to view it.
I’ve tried to find figures about how many facesitting-related injuries have been recorded. I’ve yet to find any. I have, however, discovered that 6,000 people per year injure themselves putting on/taking off their trousers, 3,000 people a year walk into trees, and at least one man (in China) injured himself by sticking a USB-cable into his urethra.
As an aside, since China already has a heavily-censored Internet, and the aforementioned numpty managed to find that idea online anyway, doesn’t that indicate there may be a flaw in this plan?
“Down With This Sort of Thing!”
The DEB takes the regulations of the AVMS further. The AVMS did not make it illegal to view this material (although some material was already banned under the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act, Obscene Publications Act and Video Recordings Act). However, under the DEB, such content will be blocked to UK viewers. This is clearly a case of moving the goalposts.
It isn’t as if we’re talking about niche fetishes. Significant amounts of lesbian, and even straight, pornography contain facesitting. Spanking, physical restraint and “penetration with objects associated with violence” – one could clearly make an argument that the penis falls under that heading – are also commonplace. And with regards to “humiliation” and “physical or verbal abuse”, these can be extremely subjective. People are at the mercy of what others consider to be humiliating or abusive. You know what? Some people simply enjoy rough sex!
My girlfriend calls me a “dirty bitch” during sex sometimes – it’s within our agreed boundaries but subjectively could be considered humiliating or abusive, more so when she’s spanking or biting me while doing it.
With the IPA, while at present the government are not going to be collecting information about what specific pages visited (only websites), they’re only one ammendment away from making it that much more intrusive. And even if they never do, websites such as Kink.com will almost certainly be banned permanently. And no, not a member. Too expensive.
The IPA is about fighting crime. It is understandable that we want to take measures to protect the public from terrorism and other serious offenders. This law won’t do that. You might catch some low-hanging fruit but it’s so easy to navigate around the restrictions that any serious cyber-criminal is already hiding themselves online. By using a VPN, using the Tor browser and/or routing traffic through anonymous proxy servers, an individual up to no good can hide their browsing. Criminals have been using disposable “burner” mobiles for years, and end-to-end encryption between criminals is easy to set up. We can’t simply poke holes in encryption because it wouldn’t be long before the hackers exploited those holes.
So what are we actually doing? Well, we’re spending billions and collecting petabytes or more of data to fulfil a purpose that it is incapable of fulfilling. In which case, we’ll have to expand the remit of the law to justify its existence. We could expand it to using a computer algorithm to pick up combinations of sites visited, search terms etc. to Minority Report the shit out of things. Our systems come across Bill, who has been Googling high school shootings, looking at crime scene images, visiting websites about mass murders and our context-less computer flags him as a potential problem. Only Bill is actually a criminal psychology student preparing his end-of-year dissertation.
And never forget that we have no proof that the DEB will not eventually forbid other sexual acts. I dare say there’s more injuries from badly performed anal sex than there is from facesitting, so can we be sure they won’t ban that? And then, they might already have a list of people to investigate under the IPA.
Security, and the Lack Thereof
To succeed in its goal of making sure no precious children get access to pornography, the DEB wants to introduce age verification. Since pornography can be found on Twitter, Google+, Blogger/Blogspot, WordPress, Tumblr, Wikipedia, multiple cloud storage providers, Reddit and a bunch of other forums and websites, it will become necessary for pretty much the entire Internet to either be censored and/or age verification put in place. This means that virtually every UK Internet user will have to submit to age verification, regardless of their interest in pornographic material. Who is controlling this data?
The DEB contains no privacy criteria. Off the top of my head, Naughty America, Ashley Madison, Fling, Adult Friend Finder and xHamster have suffered data breaches with various levels of personal data dumped on to the Internet or deep web. Major, non-adult, sites such as MySpace, LinkedIn, Adobe, Plex and MalwareBytes have suffered similar breaches. And let’s not forget the likes of Fridae – a website for the Asian LGBTQ community – suffering a data breach and leak. The UK government itself, according to the National Audit Office, have suffered 9,000 personal data breaches over 2014/15.
By putting virtually everybody on some sort of list – whether that list is controlled by the government, the individual sites, or both – we are collecting the database of a criminal hacker’s dreams! Think about the blackmail/extortion potential of a list of pornography viewers or adult dating site customers. Imagine the consequences if information about vulnerable LGBTQ individuals were leaked onto the Internet? Or even vulnerable people in general?
The Sane Response
Children should not have access to adult material. I agree with that. However, blanket censorship and privacy invasive laws is not the answer. The tech-savvy teenagers will find workarounds, just like the criminals and may end up accessing material far worse than the average video on the front page of Pornhub. You even risk creating an unregulated underground of pornography producers and disseminators.
Instead, let’s readjust our attitudes to sex, to risk and to security. Sex and Relationship Education should be mandatory, and we should not wait until children are already in puberty. By the time I had sex education at school, I had developed pubic hair and had discovered that certain types of touching felt good. The human body is biologically programmed to understand reproductive behaviour without third-party education. What we should be doing is beating Mother Nature to the punch, enforcing education about sex that covers body-image, emotions and all the important aspects of sex and relationships. And yes, we should be telling children that what they may see in pornography is not necessarily what they should expect from sex.
Stop Being Prudes
Meanwhile, given that 70% of UK households contain no children, we should look at the 30% that do and encourage them to take a proactive approach to parenting. Use the filters, monitor their kid’s web usage and actually fucking talk to them! Promote a positive body-image and make sure girls and boys understand that what they might see – and not just in porn – is not always something to aspire to and feel bad about if they cannot.
The backward attitude to sex and sexuality we have in this country is far more damaging than most of the content online. By passing these laws, we’re telling everyone that if their sexual desires deviate from some sort of acceptable, approved normality, that there is something wrong with them! There fucking isn’t.
These laws are a direct attack on anybody who believes that sex can be a far more powerful and exciting experience than lying on their back for a quick bit of missionary every few weeks.