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Censoring online porn is a slippery slope

Tactics will hamper free speech, warn activists

For most people sex and the internet are as natural a pairing as apple pie and motherhood.

But increasingly the easy access to pornography that so many have enjoyed for so long is being regulated, filtered and censored by a combination of government, law enforcement, internet service providers (ISPs) and moral busybodies.

Free speech activists say what we’re seeing now is the beginning of internet censorship, with the regulation and removal of child porn as the initial motivation.

“There are efforts to combat images of the sexual abuse of prepubescent children and the major ISPs are involved,” says Nart Villeneuve, a research fellow at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab — which has done work with Chinese bloggers and dissidents on how to avoid internet censorship — in an email. “They filter access to a small amount of sites that host this stuff and have review/complaint procedures and do not appear to be overblocking.

“But once the infrastructure for filtering is in place — for any reason, though porn is usually the first excuse — there is an incentive to increase its use. I see ‘mission creep’ all the time where once in place, filtering is extended to cover content areas that were not in the original mandate.”

Chris Hansen, a staff lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), agrees that we’re at the beginning of that very slippery slope.

“I don’t think the people who are trying to get rid of child porn are going after other types of speech,” he says. “But I do think they are willing to take steps in the name of suppressing child porn that has the effect of suppressing other types of speech. There are those who believe the safest approach is to eliminate everything.

“What sort of collateral damage are we willing to accept?”

 

States and ISPs in the US restrict access to sex and porn newsgroups

That sort of massive overkill has already been displayed by several governments in the US. New York state has already pressured major ISPs to shut down Usenet groups, which still make up a large chunk of online newsgroups.

“New York attorney general Andrew Cuomo recently succeeded in pressuring AOL and AT&T to join the ranks of Verizon, Sprint and Time Warner Cable in limiting access to many or all of the Usenet newsgroups hosted on their servers,” said an article from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) in July. “This tactic will hinder free speech and the access to information in Usenet communities, without deterring the child pornographer. But since the ISPs are ‘voluntarily’ bowing to political pressure, rather than obeying a statutory edict, traditional First Amendment court challenges are unlikely to protect these online communities.”

According to the EFF, “An investigation found 88 groups containing child pornography, or 0.5 percent of the active discussion groups in the alt.* hierarchy. Verizon and Sprint are taking down one gigantic subset of groups, the very popular alt.* hierarchy, AT&T will block all alt.binaries.* groups, while Time Warner Cable and AOL are shutting down their Usenet service entirely.”

The alt.* groups contain newsgroups on sexuality, porn and other “alternative” topics.

Jerry Brown, California’s attorney general, has asked ISPs in his state to follow the same procedures.

Hansen says that while such decisions are regrettable ACLU will not take on private business decisions.

“ISPs are not under any obligation to carry anything,” he says. “For an ISP to say it will not carry Playboy.com does not raise any civil liberties issues.”

American decisions also have an impact in Canada. In 2006 Montreal-based ISP Epifora was told by MCI Canada, which hosted its connection to the internet, that a number of the groups on Epifora were in violation of the “acceptable use policy” of Verizon, MCI’s owner.

The alleged violations centred around such sites as boychat and girlchat, which were self-described at the time as “self-help message boards for minor-attracted adults,” and a website run by John Robin Sharpe, who was unsuccessfully prosecuted for child porn.

Although Epifora asked the police to review their sites, and were told they were legal, the ISP was forced to find another host. Epifora went out of business in 2007, according to the Montreal Gazette.

 

Canadian political parties want to give police easy access to customer names, addresses

It’s the law — and specifically police access to ISP information — that will be one of the next major battles.

Hansen says that in the States nobody is sure what kind of access law enforcement has.

“To what extent do they have access or to what extent are they lawfully allowed to?” he asks. “In either case the answer is we don’t know. The government is asserting brand-new powers to listen to anything in the wake of 9/11. The extent to which the police are doing this is unclear. My assumption is the ISPs are cooperating.”

In Canada the situation is theoretically more clear. Under Canadian law police must obtain judicial authorization except in cases where they have reason to believe someone is in imminent danger or in certain cases involving foreign intelligence. However ISPs can choose to provide police with subscriber information, they just don’t have to.

But there are efforts from all three major national parties to change that.

In 2007 the Conservative government held consultations on proposed legislation that would have given police immediate access to customer names and addresses (CNA).

According to a paper on the Public Safety Canada website, “Law enforcement agencies have been experiencing difficulties in consistently obtaining basic CNA information from telecommunications service providers (TSPs).

“Some companies provide this information voluntarily, while others require a warrant before providing any information, regardless of its nature or the nature of the situation. If the custodian of the information is not cooperative when a request for such information is made, law enforcement agencies may have no means to compel the production of information pertaining to the customer.”

Both the Liberals and NDP have put forward similar proposals. The Liberal government put forward legislation in November 2005 which died when an election was called.

That bill, according to the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic, would have allowed police to “obtain specified ‘subscriber data’ (name, address, telephone number, email address, IP address) upon request from TSPs…. Judicial authorization would not be required; TSPs would be obliged to provide the information upon request, without any justification on the part of the law enforcement agency. Moreover TSPs will not be allowed to disclose any information about these requests.”

The bill also required providers to have the means of interception built into their system.

NDP MP Peter Stoffer put forward a private member’s bill in 2007 that would have required ISPs to monitor the activities of their clients, and would hold them criminally and financially responsible for any illegal material posted online by those clients.

“What’s the cost of protecting our children, of protecting society?” Stoffer told Xtra last year. “The privacy advocates can go pound sand as far as I’m concerned. I have two young children. We should do everything in our power to protect children. I don’t believe in capital punishment, but I’m willing to make an exception. If it was my children, you wouldn’t have to worry about the law.”

 

Credit card companies refusing to work with porn sites

But even if your local police, government and ISPs all leave your computer alone, you might still have problems accessing your favourite porn sites.

There’s growing pressure on credit card and billing companies to refuse to work with porn sites. The prime example is the American company First Data, a multi- billion dollar IT processing company. In 2004 First Data stopped processing transactions for iBill, the company through which millions pay for their porn.

First Data also owns Western Union, which this year cut off services for two businesses owned by Pink Triangle Press, the publisher of Xtra. The company refused  to accept cash payments for Cruiseline, a phone service which allows men to meet other men for sex, and Squirt, which is a cruising website which also allows users to access gay porn.

“In general terms we do not do business with agencies that engage in adult services,” Western Union spokesperson Daniel Diaz told Xtra. “We do not allow any explicit content of any kind, photography, subscription-based adult services or other products deemed to be adult services.”

 

Filters block non-pornographic gay and lesbian content

And then there’s the question of content filters, which block internet access to sites deemed unacceptable. Parents, businesses, governments can all use filters to prevent surfers from accessing sites, even in public places like airport lounges or on free public wi-fi, which a number of North American cities have experimented with.

Queer content often gets caught up in such filters, even if it isn’t the primary target, says Villeneuve.

“Gay and lesbian is often classified as pornography even when there’s zero porn on the site,” he says. “There’s often a lifestyle category that’s a euphemism for gay and lesbian. These filtering products often have a very conservative bias. It’s quite common in companies or where there’s semipublic access.”

Villeneuve says the makers of censorship programs rarely reveal the lists or terms they use. On Macs — which block access to Xtra.ca in the Porter Airlines lounge at the Toronto island airport — a user can’t find what method Apple uses to decide what sites to censor via its parental controls.

It’s that sort of secrecy that’s most frightening as ISPs, police and government move toward an online world where we won’t even know when we’re being censored or watched or who’s doing it.

“The big issues concerning blocking pornography, on public wi-fi for example, are transparency (do you know when you are blocked?) and accountability (who chooses what to block/unblock?),” writes Villeneuve in an email. “How is content classified and who does it (a filtering company?). Is there a complaint/review mechanism?

“But the most important is the slippery slope: What about artistic nude photos or sexual education? Will a video demonstrating the correct use of a condom be blocked?”