Sophia Worringer: Pornography is harmful. We need a public health approach to it – as with alcohol and tobacco.

3 May

Sophia Worringer is a parliamentary researcher for Iain Duncan Smith, and was formerly a researcher at the Centre for Social Justice.

It is right that there has been an outcry against the now former Conservative Member of Parliament, Neil Parish, who was found to be viewing pornography on two separate occasions whilst in the House of Commons chamber.

However, there is something about the ferocity of the distain – especially from women – which has exposed our hypocrisy about pornography.

Some declare that pornography has no lasting impact on either the male or female psyche, and that when it is viewed by informed consenting adults then no harm can be done. Were this true, however, the Parish incident would not have sparked such an outpouring of apologies to women for the misogyny of Westminster, or caused women in Parliament to share their own stories of sexual abuse and harassment.

Many women feel threatened when hearing that pornography has been viewed in their presence because they know the degrading and damaging nature of its essence. While both men and women watch pornography, it is overwhelmingly still women who are degraded, abused and damaged by the industry.

The outcry is more than just about a taxpayer-funded Member of Parliament, who was sent to the green benches by his constituents to represent their views and scrutinise legislation, not being attentive to his job. When Nigel Mills played candy crush for two hours during a Work and Pensions Select Committee hearing, he apologised and the story was soon forgotten. So although MPs are not sent to Parliament to scroll on their phones, there is something inherent about the content of Parish’s viewing choices – not just the context – that was so offensive.

The depth of distress that the incident has provoked shows that we need to talk about the public health harms of pornography. Viewing it is so commonplace that many have been duped into accepting its neutrality. But those who use it need to understand its far-reaching consequences and its grip on our society. It is not prudish to want a public health approach to pornography.

It is also difficult to separate the expansion of the multi-billion dollar pornography industry from the trafficking of young women and children around the world to meet the demand. There is huge cross-party consensus on the need to tackle modern slavery, but less political will given to making clear the connection between the trafficking of people and the ‘work’ for which they are trafficked.

When viewing pornographic videos online, it is almost entirely impossible to guarantee that exploitation and abuse do not follow closely behind. Many who may be very concerned about their groceries being fair trade have no qualms about the sexual abuse in the supply chain of their porn.

Soma Sara, who set up Everyone’s Invited to expose the sexual abuse of young women in some of Britain’s top schools, has warned against the dangers of online pornography. Young women feeding into the Everyone’s Invited site reported being asked to recreate scenes from violent and degrading pornography in their first sexual encounters. Some even reported physical injuries from the acts that their boyfriends expected them to replicate.

There are very tangible dangers when online fantasies break into the real world. Few commentators made the link between the actions of the murderer of Sarah Everard and his frequent use of pornography: Wayne Couzens replicated the violent scenes he had watched online with devastating consequences.

Pornography is not passive. It changes expectations of sex, removes sex from consenting loving relationships, and rewires your brain meaning you are always wanting more. ‘Vanilla’ pornography doesn’t satisfy for long and sophisticated algorithms manipulate users into harder and darker content.

If any other activity came with such a health risk, it would have a forensic public health analysis. Users of pornography should be warned of its impact in the same way that there is a requirement to warn consumers of other goods with potential harms such as alcohol or tobacco.

Pornography users need to be aware of the potential damage even as they click on the next video. Restricting the choice of over-18s to access pornography is impossible, but ensuring that people make an informed decision is not.

Emily Carver: If our choices are lawful, can we really trust the state to judge which ones will harm us?

19 May

Emily Carver is Media Manager at the Institute of Economic Affairs. 

At some point in every child’s life comes the bleak realisation that their parents are not infallible. That they’re muddling through like everyone else, have bad habits and never get everything right, however hard they try. Perhaps they hold irrational prejudices or equivocate on who you should go out with, what you should eat, what subjects you should study.

And in as much as children think about government competence, they likely assume that policymakers know what’s best for them. That a benign state has their best interests at heart.

But at some point, it will dawn that policymakers are, in fact, humans. Flawed like the rest of us, and capable of making mistakes – some minor, some catastrophic, and some poorly-intentioned. An inability to accept or understand this fundamental truth was, in part, to blame for the failed socialist experiments throughout the twentieth century.

Yet as a nation we nonetheless collectively endorse the Government’s “we know best” attitude – be it with reference to our lifestyle choices, the economy, or ministers’ attempts to regulate our lives from what they deem to be ‘harmful’.

Granted, at times of national crisis, there is justification for government intervention in our lives that would be deemed excessive in normal times. While I would argue that very few of the restrictions that we’ve lived under over the past year or so are defensible (surely the state should never command the right to dictate who and when we can hug, for example), there is a broad consensus that protecting the public from a deadly virus justifies a level of government intervention we would usually reject.

However, even as the risk of the virus abates – with the Government on track to offer a first dose to all adults by the end of July, and the Indian variant showing no signs of being resistant to the vaccine – the rhetoric from ministers still implies that we all remain in peril.

We should be suspicious of this: fear is undoubtedly being mobilised to increase uptake in the vaccine, while ministers are reportedly considering local lockdowns once again to limit the spread of the variant. And it’s working; polling shows that only half of us will feel comfortable hugging despite the Government easing restrictions.

Just as we’ve seen ministers continue to call for the utmost caution as lockdown measures ease, it’s clear that this Government sees its purpose as protecting us from anything that could possibly cause us ‘harm’, with its increasingly paternalistic streak encroaching into nearly every area of our lives.

Take the Online Safety Bill which was published last week, and made a notable appearance in last week’s Queen’s Speech. The stated aim of the legislation is to “put an end to harmful practices” on the internet – a suspiciously large remit and one, which, as Victoria Hewson points out in a recent briefing paper for the Institute of Economic Affairs, will undoubtedly lead to a curtailment of free speech.

While it is glaringly obvious that the internet contains sordid material, from violent porn to Islamist and far-right extremist content, the Bill goes far beyond seeking to stamp out illegal content.  It will seek to extend a “duty of care” to social media firms, which, while it may sound to some like a positive step, includes a duty to remove “lawful but still harmful” content, which includes “misinformation” – a notoriously nebulous and undoubtedly subjective term.

So, when it comes to the internet, ministers believe that censoring is justified to prevent harm. However, the Government is clearly conflicted over the matter of free speech. On the one hand, we have the Education Secretary seeking to stamp out unlawful ‘silencing’ on university campuses through the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill; on the other, in seeking to ban the abhorrent practice of gay conversion therapy, it may well end up curtailing legitimate forms of therapy for those struggling with gender dysphoria.

Much like a parent intent on disciplining their naughty child, this Government’s preferred policy tool seems to be prohibition. It had been thought that the Government had decided against bringing in an ill-considered ban on so-called ‘junk food’ advertising on TV and online – but no, the proposed legislation reared its ugly head once again in the Queen’s Speech.

Not only is there no evidence to suggest this will have any impact on the nation’s collective waistline, but it is also fundamentally illiberal, severely curtailing businesses’ freedom to communicate with their customers and threatening broadcasters’ revenue.

The trend towards paternalism is concerning and, even more so, the level to which the public seem to be acquiescing with it. Even before Covid hit, the Government was encroaching in ever more areas of our life; the pandemic has only accelerated this trend.

Maria Miller: Death and rape threats, abuse, revenge porn. It’s time for Government to get tough with the social media giants.

28 Feb

Maria Miller is a former Culture Secretary, and is MP for Basingstoke.

I want 2021 to be the year that we finally grasp the nettle of online abuse – to create a safer, more respectful online environment, that will lead to a kinder politics too.

The need has never been greater. Abuse, bullying, and harassment on social media platforms is ruining lives, undermining our democracy, and splintering society.

As an MP, I have had to become accustomed to a regular bombardment of online verbal abuse, rape, and even death threats. In this I am far from alone. Female colleagues across the House are routinely targeted online with abusive, sexist, threatening comments. As Amnesty has shown, black female MPs are most likely to be subjected to unacceptable and even unlawful abuse.

And while women and people from an ethnic minority background are more likely than most to receive abuse online, they are not alone. Hate-filled trolls and disruptive spammers consider anyone with a social media presence to be fair game: one in four people have experienced some kind of abuse online and online bullying and harassment has been linked to increased rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide.

While the personal impact of online abuse is intolerable, we must not underestimate the societal effect it is having. Research by the think-tank Compassion in Politics found that 27 per cent of people are put off posting on social media because of retributive abuse. We cannot have an open, honest, and pluralist political debate online in an atmosphere in which people are scared to speak up.

Which is why I am working cross-party with MPs and Peers to ensure that the upcoming Online Harms Bill is as effective as possible in tackling the scourge of online abuse.

First, the Bill must deal with the problem of anonymous social media accounts. Anonymous accounts generate the majority of the abuse and misinformation spread online and while people should have an option to act incognito on social media, the harm these accounts cause must be addressed.

I support a twin-track system: giving social media users the opportunity to create a “verified” account by supplying a piece of personal identification and the ability to filter out “unverified” accounts. This would give choice to verified users while continuing to offer protection to those, for example whistle blowers, who want to access social media anonymously.

The public back this idea. Polling by Opinium for Compassion in Politics reveals that 81 per cent of social media users would be willing to provide a piece of personal identification (passport, driving license or bank statement most probably) to gain a verified account. Three in four (72 per cent) believe that social media companies need to have a more interventionist role to wipe out the abuse on their platforms.

Of course, this approach would need to be coupled with enforcement ,and I believe that can be achieved by introducing a duty of care on social media companies, along the lines suggested in the Government’s White Paper.

For too long, they have escaped liability for the harm they cause by citing legal loopholes, arguing they are platforms for content not producers or publishers. The legal environment that has facilitated social media companies’ growth is not fit for purpose – it must change to better reflect their previously unimaginable reach and influence. Any company that sells a good to a customer already has to abide by health and safety standards, and there is no reason to exempt social media companies. Any failure by those companies to undertake effective measures to limit the impact of toxic accounts should result in legal sanctions.

Alongside a duty of care, we need more effective laws to give individuals protection, particularly when it comes to posting of images online without consent. Deepfake, revenge pornography and up-skirting are hideous inventions of the online world. I want new laws to make it a crime to post or threaten to post an intimate image without consent, and for victims to be offered the same anonymity as others subjected to a sexual offence, so we stop needing the law to play continuous ‘catch up’ as new forms of online abuse emerge.

Finally, the Government should make good on its promise to invest an independent organisation with the power and resources to regulate social media companies in the UK. All the signs suggest that Ofcom will be asked to undertake that role and I can see no problem with that proposal as long asthe company is given truly wide-ranging and independent powers, and personnel with the knowledge to tackle the social media giants.

In making these recommendations to Government, my intention is not to punish social media companies or to stifle online debate. Far from it. I want a more respectful, representative, and reasonable discourse online. So, let’s work together over the coming 12 months to make this Bill genuinely world-leading in the protection it will create for social media users, in the inclusivity it will foster, and respect it will engender.

Nick Fletcher: How the Government can and should act now to protect young people from exploitation by porn

19 Oct

Nick Fletcher is MP for Don Valley.

The question of online safety is one of the significant challenges of our times. In the Conservative Party’s 2015 Manifesto, we promised to change the law to require the provision of robust age verification checks on pornographic websites.

The Government of the day then fulfilled this promise through Part Three of the Digital Economy Act 2017. In doing so, become we became the first country in the world to adopt a bold, innovative approach to protect children. Yet despite this, the age verification scheme set out in Part Three is still not in place.

This matters enormously because there is a growing evidence base detailing the effects pornography is having and will continue to have, on young people especially.

For example, a recent study by the British Board of Film Classification suggests that children and teenagers are stumbling across online pornography in some cases as young as seven or eight. More than half of 11-13-year olds reported that they’d seen pornography at some point and 62 per cent of 11-13-year olds who had seen pornography said the first time was ‘accidental’.

This problem is widespread, too. A major study in 2016 by the NSPCC showed more than half of 11-16-year olds had viewed explicit content online.

We also know that watching porn can shape and influence how a young person understands healthy sex and relationships. This is because, as The Children’s Society explains, “people under 18 are still in the stages of cognitive development and may not be able to separate the images they see through pornography and how they act in their everyday life.”

This is demonstrated in polling. For example, a survey by the NSPCC found that more than 87 per cent of boys and 77 per cent of girls surveyed “felt pornography failed to help them understand consent.” Forty-one per cent of young people who knew about porn also agreed it made people less respectful to the opposite sex.

In this context, it is disappointing that we did not persevere to introduce robust age verification controls on online pornography last year. This is particularly poignant, as the UK was poised to become the first country in the world to introduce these controls and take a giant leap forward in the protection of children online not just in the UK but across the world.

MPs and Peers had rigorously debated the impact of age verification. I have to admit that even I had doubts about whether age verification technology would prove effective. Yet having spoken to several policymakers in this field, it is evident that the technology would work.

I am also told that everything was also ready to implement these necessary safeguards. The British Board of Film Classification was appointed the independent regulator in February 2018, and both the Commons and the Lords had approved the age verification scheme.

Yet the Government decided not to proceed with the policy in October 2019, saying that they wanted to deal with children’s access to online porn as part of a new, more comprehensive Online Harms Bill tackling all online harms.

Yet new polling by Savanta ComRes shows that while the public do not object to the proposed Online Harms Bill, they are not wholly satisfied with this arrangement. For example, when asked last month what was closer to their position, 63 per cent of the 2,100+ adults polled said they thought the Government should get on and introduce age verification right away, rather than wait any longer, and implement additional protections against other online harms when they are ready.

Meanwhile, only 21 per cent thought the Government should wait for the new Online Harms Bill to introduce protections against all online harms at the same time. Indeed, when one excludes the ‘don’t knows’ (15 per cent) and looks at those with a firm view, 74 per cent said the Government should get on with implementing Part Three now. This is a position which I also agree with.

Equally, we also must recognise that the world has changed considerably since October 2019. After all, if the Government had implemented Part Three in October last year, children would have been better protected throughout lockdown.

Furthermore, Coronavirus has also presumably stalled the progress of the Online Harms Bill. This is particularly relevant because the decision not to implement Part Three was justified as the new Bill was anticipated to be available in early 2020 for pre-legislative scrutiny. Yet it failed to materialise. In fact, due to the ongoing situation, the Government has not been able to publish its full response to its consultation on its Online Harms White Paper, which closed on 1 July 2019.

In the context of this changing world, the old strategy has therefore been overtaken by events.

Consequently, even if a new bill were published tomorrow, it would still be imperative to implement Part Three immediately because it would take two or three years for a new Bill to be scrutinised and passed and the relevant secondary legislation, developed, scrutinised, passed and then implemented.

The truth is that we can protect children from commercial pornography sites now through Part Three of the Digital Economy Act and should do so. Everything is in place for age verification to be introduced. The necessary legislative framework is there on the statute book. The relevant technology is ready. More importantly, the public wants it. As such, I believe it is imperative that the Government should fulfil its objective to make the UK a world leader in online safety.