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August 31, 2005

A snoopers' charter?

The announcement recently that the "moral minority" that dominate Blair's government are to introduce a new set of laws making it illegal to access or download pornography from the internet has overtones of "Big Brother". While the pornography issue is a thorny one, and is rightly regulated in print and distribution laws in every nation, the internet poses a whole new range of problems.

Firstly I would like to acknowledge that the promulgation of violent and degrading images, films, and other forms of this material via the internet is horrendous and should be repugnant to us all. But it is a fact of life - in fact it has been since time immemorial if the paintings in Pompei and other ancient sites are anything to go by! Even our television is now laced with some truly repulsive stuff, particularly if you have access to satelite channels. Regulation doesn't seem to have much impact there either!

It is not so much the regulation of this that I find worrying, it is the powers of enforcement and the interpretation that will be put to it by the enforcers. All very well for ministers to mouth their usual platitudes about privacy and the rest, the reality is that they do not give a damn about how these powers are used and abused by officials. It is stated that the possession of images which "degrade" and show "gratuitous violence", "torture", or "restraint" will be the only ones affected. That depends on someones interpretation, a very subjective subject! A good example is the new Licencing Act, which contains provisions for objections to late opening being lodged by anyone "in the vicinity" of the licenced premises. Sounds good, until you discover that the officials (Yes, you've guessed, the faceless wonders of Whitehall again!) have put a limit on "affected area" of a radius of 80 yards from the licenced premises! I live a mile from a club which has a current "late opening" licence and am regularly woken by drunken revellers shouting and screaming and fighting in the street outside my home - which happens to be a thoroughfare - but I am not allowed to object! The same thing will happen to the new laws, Whitehall "guidance" will licence more of their incompetents to snoop and their interpretation of what is and is not "offensive" pornography will be so wide that I can see grandparents being marched into court for having pictures of their grandchildren in bathing suits!

It would seem that the Police or some even more shadowy government agency will soon have the power to monitor the internet, in particular certain websites, and record the ISP of everyone who visits it. This should worry us all, because this is only one step away from then monitoring all traffic from someone's computer and everything that you do on it or through it onto the web. Big Brother will then know who all your friends are, who says and thinks what, and to whom. Pornography may be the declared target, but is it the only target? Given Whitehall's penchant for snooping and interference in private life, I doubt it. Soon it will be monitoring your views on religion, family life, children's behaviour and politics. It will be all too easy for these powers to be extended as Blair's Dictatorship extends its tentacles ever further into how we live our daily private lives.

I have learned from friends who work for various organisations who write software and who develop hardware/software for looking at and monitoring internet traffic that it is possible now to monitor who is visiting what on the internet. In fact, it is apparently possible to set up a system whereby a computer monitors particular ISP's and locks in the ISP address of every visitor. This is, of course, where some of the more creative users of the internet have developed programmes which scramble or generate false ISP's for their wanderings through programmes such as "Thor" - which is illegal in most Western countries - but, which I learn, is used by most of those generating spam and pornography! It would seem to me then, that the real sex offenders are likely to have access to this sort of programme and it will be the small time offender whose curiosity or boredom and possibly loneliness has led him or her to explore these sites that will suffer the full weight of the law - purely so that the Whitehall nannies can show how effective their snooping is.

As I said earlier, I am not a supporter of pornography, I do however, support a person's right to privacy and to live their lives in their own way - provided it does not impact on anyone else! And there lies my dilemma. Pornography does hit someone. It affects the person who is coerced, inveigled, or simply forced into it by economics, desperation, or abuse very, very badly. Hitting the user may restrict it but I suspect it will have little impact on stopping it.

There is one more thing that I find very difficult in this debate (not that there has been one!), and I suspect I may not be the only person to have spotted this anomaly - the people now introducing this legislation and trying to restrict the use and spread of pornography are the very same ones who fought to scrap censorship of films, rules of decency and behaviour, and are even trying to sneek in legalised prostitution. The leopard changing its spots, or something more sinister? I suspect it has much more to do with "being seen to have done something" than with any real desire to help the victims, and I also suspect that it is simply another way to get their "Thought Police" more powers to snoop into the privacy of our computers and erode further our freedom of speech and thought. Pornography may be the target, but I rather doubt it will be the only thing these powers will be used to access and restrict.

Posted by The Gray Monk at August 31, 2005 10:01 AM


The problem I have with this legislation is that it targets the end user who, it could be argued, are equally the victims of a repulsive trade and which does nothing to threaten the traders themselves. That is because government is can only pursue those within its borders and not worldwide.

I'd be happier if they targetted the middle-man instead, ie the credit card companies. Hefty fines for those found aiding and abetting would soon strangle the trade, though for how long...?

Posted by: Shooting Parrots at August 31, 2005 07:58 PM

What will happen is the distribution will go back to the pre internet days. people will burn the images to cd, sneak them in, and then sell them. Then people will only view them on computers that have never been connected to the internet(so no spyware is downloaded) and the goverenment will be once again out of the loop. So once again the goverenment will have driven underground a problem that was just coming to light(for the majority), so a real solutions could be found. Instead they are solving a symptom and leaving the disease untreated.

Posted by: skipjack at September 1, 2005 04:41 AM

Sadly, I suspect that Skipjack is right, the problem will simply move to a new medium. Hitting the source is the only real way to tackle this - as it is with drug abuse and so many other things we are beset with.

Posted by: The Gray Monk at September 1, 2005 07:06 AM