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Tuesday, June 18, 2013 

Ignorance, immaturity and idiocy: all part of the debate on the internet and porn.

I'm struggling to think of a recent issue so appallingly approached and debated as the recent blow up over the availability of pornography on the internet has been.  The only really comparable issue that comes to mind was the short lived moral panic over "meow meow", or Mephedrone, where the Sun was in the vanguard, claiming at one point that teachers would have to give the drug back to any students it was confiscated from as it wasn't illegal.  Interestingly, the "legal high" market continues to grow, leaving even more questions for potential users over safety, yet the tabloids seem to have decided the story's done.

Even that outbreak of silliness can't compete though with the idiocy that's descended thanks to the collision of technology and naked human flesh.  While the lead has been taken by the Daily Mail, the Sun having always had a problem commenting on porn thanks to its continuing attachment to publishing a topless woman on its third page almost every day, we've also had stunningly stupid interventions from the former broadsheets.  The Graun comprehensively cocked up by publishing an editorial which seemed to call for the banning of all porn, later corrected to "just" violent porn, while the Sunday Times has been caught out using some exceptionally dodgy statistics to claim we're living in "generation porn", using an image of a topless woman to illustrate its point, natch.

Obviously, there are two separate issues at the heart of the sound and fury which require entirely different responses, although the conflation of the two hasn't helped matters.  First is that any action which makes images of child abuse more difficult to find on the net is a good thing.  We don't know how Stuart Hazell or Mark Bridger got hold of the images they viewed before they went on to kill Tia Sharp and April Jones respectively, or just how much of an influence they had on their crimes, but it can't be denied they played some role. What doesn't help is the scaremongering and apparent lack of knowledge displayed by those pushing at an open door. One Daily Mail headline gave the impression that Google was the internet, and so could deal with child porn at a stroke if it wished, while it also claimed 1.5 million people had "stumbled" on such images. To top all that, it enlisted Amanda Platell to try and find some illegal material, only for the queen of the Glendas to claim a  scene from 2001 featuring a then 19-year-old was proof of the easy availability of filmed child abuse.

The reality is that unless you actively seek it out, it is exceptionally rare to encounter images or video of child abuse by chance. In 15 years or so of using the internet, and having spent a significant period of that time not always on the most salubrious of sites, only twice have I come across images that almost certainly were of abuse. The first was many years ago when exploring a back door posted on a forum into one of the early sites that offered space to host images. By refreshing a specific link, a new image was randomly fetched from seemingly all those that had been uploaded, and one, and just one from the dozens or more looked to be of abuse. The second, far more prosaically, was when I happened to be browsing /b/ on 4chan at the time as someone decided to flood it with images of children, something it's long been notorious for.

The worry is not just journalists that don't know what they're writing about, but politicians also being ignorant of how things work.  When Maria Miller talks of preventing images from even becoming available in the first place, it's difficult not to sigh.  This lack of knowledge does indeed seem to have irked ISPs, with one source complaining to the Graun about today's meeting with the government that "generally speaking the politicians there fundamentally (or wilfully) misunderstand the technical and legal aspects to the subject".  When increasingly those who are doing something dodgy move towards the so-called "darknet", or use TOR to access the deep web, there's relatively little that the ISPs themselves can do.  Giving the Internet Watch Foundation more funding to actively seek out illegal material might help, but considering in the past they've made some extraordinarily stupid decisions about what to block, handing an unaccountable organisation even more leeway isn't necessarily a unmitigated good thing.

When it comes to the easy online availability of perfectly legal pornography, it continues to amaze me how a Conservative government that preaches personal responsibility in every other area seems to think in this instance it's not the duty of parents to ensure they have measures in place to stop their children from viewing it.  There really ought to be no excuse for not doing so; the generation having children now (which, rather scarily, is my own) were brought up with computers and so can't claim to be completely illiterate.  It certainly is true that it's difficult to block access to every video sharing site, and it's all but impossible to stop children from sending each other videos they've acquired from somewhere over their phones, but if they've reached the age at which they're doing that then they're old enough to be sat down and talked with about what it is they've watched.  Yes, there needs to be a change in sex education so that pornography is discussed and addressed, but it's also down to parents to explain that porn is fantasy and has very little connection with real life.  For the vast majority, porn is not going to damage them, or make them lose their innocence.  If anything, parents tend to be shocked by how much their offspring already know by the time they get round to it.

This isn't to regard porn as a whole as being harmless, although I'd say most of it is and its spread may even have had some positive effects, but it's ridiculous to regard it as being a unique danger to children and their development.  I watch porn even though there's many things about much of it that I loathe, whether it be the despicable misogyny that disfigures the "reality" genre that now dominates, or the way that so much of it follows the same tired format of suck, fuck, "facial", the latter which is troubling in itself.  The only way we can deal with its increasing influence is to discuss it maturely: if we don't, then those who've grown up with it accessible at the click of a mouse will.

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