Advocacy group Backlash makes submission to Lords

Sat. 18 Feb. 2017

Backlash is a campaign organisation founded soon after the UK government first made moves in 2005 to introduce the infamous “extreme porn law”. In its own words, “Backlash UK is an organisation that defends freedom of sexual expression among consenting adults... We provide legal, academic and campaigning advice.”

Predictably, the government ploughed ahead with its extreme-porn law; that law became effective early in 2009, and “we” have come a long way since then – a long way in the wrong direction, that is. I’ll be brief with this essential background: with the increasing uptake of smartphones, we saw mobile-service providers impose default “filtering” on internet access. Even after the customer has done what’s necessary to have the “filter” turned off, it is continually re-applied (this can be every few weeks, or perhaps once a year). Then, under government pressure, home-broadband internet service providers (ISPs) began introducing a similar removable-but-default “filtering” system from late 2013. One ISP even employed the Chinese IT company that works on China’s internet censorship regime.

Now we’re about to move to the next level, and the face of the internet in the UK is about to change as a consequence: The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), formerly the British Board of Film Censors – ironically, the name change from “Censors” to “Classification” occurred in 1984 – has been charged with the task to, essentially, classify websites in a manner similar to films. As far as we know at this stage, sites judged to host “obscene” content as defined by the antiquated Obscene Publications Act 1959 will be automatically blocked at the ISP level: nobody in the UK will ever be able to access them. Sites rated equivalent to R18 will be legally required to introduce age-verification systems that will probably work by the would-be visitor providing their credit-card details, which are then verified electronically by what is supposed to be an encrypted communication with banks’ databases. Under-18s cannot legally have a credit card. Website operators will have to pay for every age-verification request. Any such “R18” site that does not implement age-verification will also be blocked at ISP level. International sites will have their UK visitors cut off if they do not comply. It’s not just online video that will be censored, but still images – i.e. photographs – as well. The EU ruled these new internet-censorship laws illegal under EU human rights law, but the government ignored it, or got around it somehow.

All of this new censorship is contained in the Digital Economy Bill (DEB), which has passed through the House of Commons and is now with the House of Lords. This is where Backlash comes in. No, they did not march into Parliament dressed in rubber and leather slave harnesses and prostrate themselves before the Lords: the “submission” to which I refer is a briefing document they drew up and provided to the Lords for when they consider the DEB. It’s an excellent briefing: the document puts in sensible context the UK’s internet-censorship component of the DEB and answers many questions. It also raises legitimate, very serious concerns and flaws in the proposed new law. Will the Lords take any notice of Backlash’s briefing? I sincerely hope they do, but I won’t be holding my breath.

Here is the link to the Backlash briefing: House of Lords briefing on the Digital Economy Bill.

And while I’m about it, “Obscenity lawyer” Myles Jackman, who provides pro bono legal advice for Backlash, has written an insightful article for the New Statesman about the DEB: Inside the government’s mad plan to catalog every video on the Internet.

And for some time I have myself written periodically about this looming new era of internet censorship; you can begin with this item: I have begun the wholesale censoring of this website (there are further links contained therein). I also have links to Backlash and Myles Jackman’s site, as well as others, on my Links page.

Finally, all the talk and legal wording seems to be about “R18” material, but I’m not sure there’s any guarantee that certain categories of “18-rated” material won’t also be included. And then there’s also the fear – down the track, if not in this version of the DEB – that sites will be slapped with age-verification orders based on their textual content. We would, then, really be getting into George Orwell territory.

Mistress Geo