Why the Digital Economy Bill matters…. and it’s not just about porn

The Digital Economy Bill continues its march through the legislative process, and disappointingly (or predictably, depending on one’s perspective) the Lords thus far seem to be failing to temper the Government’s ridiculous proposals for age verification to view pornography. It is therefore apt to run through the three main problems with this part of the legislation.

Lack of evidence

First, it represents a surrender to priggish mythologising and neo-puritan virtue-signalling. The stated purpose of the measures is to ‘keep children safe online’. But it simply isn’t so that pornography represents an unequivocal danger to children, whether in terms of frequency or consequences of exposure. Much evidence offered to the Commons committee was anecdotal at best, and started from the assumption that pornography is inherently harmful, rather than proving it.

The scholarly literature is divided between ‘gender studies’ poppycock on the one hand, which merely reinforces the mantra that pornography is inherently misogynistic and socially harmful; and the somewhat more credible evidence of the psychology literature, which is far more circumspect about potential harm, and even cautiously suggests there may be some key benefits such as a reduction in sexual offences, as urges that might otherwise be acted upon are sublimated through pornography consumption.

Indeed, following the collapse of communism in Czechoslovakia (as was), and with it the police state and censors, strong statistical evidence (p < 0.001) links an increase in exposure to pornography to a significant decrease in voyeuristic sex crimes and child abuse, and no upsurge in rapes. Now this result isn’t from some online survey run on the cheap, like the NSPCC one, to which children were recruited by their parents as members of a site offering pennies in cashback per survey taken; nor is it the axe-grinding of a bitter ‘anti-pornography activist’. Rather, it is hard data from a sample of millions over several decades.

But this bill was never about evidence; draconian measures such as those proposed give politicians the opportunity to pander to both the socially conservative right and the authoritarian left, providing plenty of simplistic soundbites about protecting children, which instantly makes any opposition seem unreasonable or even deranged.

Unworkable and dangerous

Secondly, while seeking to palliate this imaginary social ill, the Bill introduces a very real potential for social mayhem. Some of the possible consequences have already been well rehearsed on this site: data breaches, costs to the taxpayer, the potential for abuse. Since there is no way the BBFC can check every porn video in existence for forbidden acts, or every site on the Internet for the presence of pornography, collateral blocking due to algorithmic vagaries presents a significant concern; indeed, Claire Perry MP ended up having her own website blocked by the ‘voluntary’ ISP filtering she campaigned for in 2013. The disproportionate impact on sexual minorities can also not be discounted, as niche providers are less likely to be able to afford technical age verification systems.

Freedom of expression

Thirdly, and by far most seriously, this Bill seeks to put in place a mechanism to censor the Internet. Defenders of the Bill may point out that such a thing already exists, with the Internet Watch Foundation maintaining a blacklist of child abuse imagery. However, there is a key difference. Child abuse is a serious offence, in the sense of the Serious Crime Act 2007, hence curtailing the ‘liberty’ of individuals to participate in such offences is an entirely proper and normal exercise of state power. But viewing adult pornography is not a crime. It is a social taboo, although it has arguably become far less so than it once was. Once the mechanism is in place to lock out the bogeymen lurking at the periphery of society, however, and the Overton window has shifted to a broader acceptance of such censorship, it can be applied to other perceived ills as well. Pornography is a good place to start, as few are willing to defend it, for fear of being lumped in with the perverts and sex fiends.

This is definitely a slippery slope, but not of the fallacious variety. Indeed, a proposed amendment was even tabled in Parliament to extend the measures in the Bill to provide for a ‘code of practice’ to force social media sites to clamp down on ‘online abuse’, though nowhere was the latter term actually defined, which is rather symptomatic of the overall lack of rigour behind the whole process. And one needn’t look much further than the musings of Cherie Blair to find that such angst about discourse online is often merely a thinly veiled attempt to mandate that it is fettered and muzzled, to conform to a certain ideology’s notions of the convenient and acceptable. Just as with pornography, the line they wish to draw falls well short of criminal behaviour, but includes such nebulous maladies as ‘trolling’ and ‘misogyny’, which, much like ‘heresy’ and ‘witchcraft’, can always be defined in a way which advantages the accuser, who often simply wants to silence robust dissent or ideological heterodoxy.

The law already provides for where criticism crosses the line into criminality. Whilst real threats of violence do arise from time to time on social media, and this in no way represents a defence of such behaviour, a statutory framework exists for dealing with them (for example, the anti-Semite convicted recently of the criminal harassment of an MP). These proposals seek to bypass those criminal standards, which are set far, far higher than the neo-puritans would like, and do away with a judicial process to boot: it’s much easier to be condemned by a collective of common scolds on Twitter, or a suitably tuned algorithm, than by a jury of one’s peers.

In short, this opposition to pornography, as a form of free expression, provides a foot in the door for those who want to make the Internet a ‘safe space’ more generally, and there is no sign that they are letting up in their campaigning. This means we must campaign louder and more forcefully.

In its early days, the Web was a wild place, largely ungoverned and widely regarded as ungovernable. It was a completely free market of ideas. And, like most free markets, it was a staggering success. Attempts to tame it must be viewed with extreme caution; and, while firm barriers are undoubtedly necessary to prevent serious crime, they must always be erected with the lightest possible legislative touch, and least intrusive technical measures. On both of these counts, this Bill fails.

Read our paper (part one) on the Digital Economy Bill: Online Pornography: A Moral Panic


Stephen is a writer and researcher, drawing on his experience as a former Army officer with a background in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.  A pragmatic minarchist and instinctual conservative, he likes free speech, free markets, and free people. Follow him on Twitter: @sp_ogrady

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The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty

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