The purpose of this page is to send out an alert whenever we update our coverage of issues or announce events. Details will be posted here, along with suggestions as to what you can do to help. You can also find our archives with background material through the links below.
Government move to make downloading "extreme" pornography a crime
The Home Office has begun a consultation process on plans to strengthen the criminal law in respect of possession of extreme adult images. The government is currently discussing plans that could lead people to being imprisoned for downloading images from the internet. This is a step too far from a government determined to regulate every aspect of our lives and quash individual expression.Posted 26 October 2005
Tony Smythe 1938-2004A long-time civil libertarian has been lost to us. (Guardian obituary)
Censorship is more degrading and corrupting than pornography can ever be. - Tony Smythe
Watching Sex: How Men Really Respond to Pornography
In 1990 when the Home Office report on pornography was released, perhaps its most interesting conclusion was that, although everyone seems willing to make confident statements about how men use and interpret pornography, no one had ever done any research at all on the subject. Such research was long overdue, in fact, but as time went by it became clear that no one was interested in funding such an exercise.
Independently, David Loftus was apparently getting the impression that what he heard in the media about men's reactions to pornography didn't really reflect his own impression of how men use it. So he set out to examine that topic for himself. Since no publishers were interested in the subject, he had to work on the cheap, but the book is here now. Click the image above to learn more. (14 September 2003)
Bush administration policy wonk uses UK laws to suppress American journalist in US
WASHINGTON — Richard Perle, the influential foreign policy hawk, is suing journalist Seymour Hersh over an article he wrote implying that Mr. Perle is using his position as a Pentagon adviser to benefit financially from a war to liberate Iraq. "I intend to launch legal action in the United Kingdom. I’m talking to Queen’s Counsel right now," Mr. Perle, who chairs the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board, a non-paying position, told The New York Sun last night.Hersh's article, written by an experienced and respected reporter in a magazine that still believes in fact-checking, looks pretty careful to me, and certainly wouldn't be taken seriously as libel in an American court. But wealthy Americans no longer have to worry about irresponsible lawsuits, apparently, if they can show that an article can be seen in Britain. And, of course, it can, since it's online. The editor of The New Yorker, David Remnick, is backing Hersh, saying the article, "went through serious reporting, with four members of the board talking to Sy [Hersh], and rigorous factchecking, legal-checking and all the rest."
He said he took issue with Mr. Perle’s description of Mr. Hersh on CNN Sunday as "the closest thing American journalism has to a terrorist."The frightening thing is that someone close to the White House thinks he can protect his reputation by going on the record as an enemy of free speech. But then, perhaps that's not so surprising when it's this White House.
American journalists are becoming increasingly aware that many residents of the US are relying heavily on the British news media via the Internet for international and even national news that is not being covered in America's sycophantic news media. The BBC and The Guardian online are now the news sources of choice for a growing number of US citizens who have become disgusted with the paucity of real news they are receiving from newspapers, broadcast, and cable media at home that seem to be unwilling to question Bush administration policies. Attacking journalists through the British courts is apparently the Republicans' answer. [13 March 2003]
The Great Debate:
Not in Front of the Children
Not in Front of the Children: "Indecency," Censorship, and the Innocence of Youth, Marjorie Heins, Hill and Wang, New York, 2001. ISBN 0-374-17545-4
Marjorie Heins was one of the lawyers on the American Civil Liberties Union team in their winning case against the Computer Decency Act (Reno v. ACLU). As she points out, the central issue in that case, and in most of the legal and legislative moves to restrict the Internet and other media, was never really addressed: Do we actually know that violent or sexual media harm children (or minors)?
The history of this kind of censorship often gives the appearance of a course in moral philosophy untainted by any serious attention to the facts. Evidence that seeing "adult" fare harms children is thin at best, but that doesn't stop the censors.
Heins takes the reader on a tour of the legal "reasoning" behind moves to restrict media - allegedly on behalf of children - all over the globe, through legislation and court tests, noting the paucity of scientific support along the way. Her discussion of ratings systems for the Internet sounds a clear warning against a process being pushed in legislatures around the world that is potentially devastating to free speech online.
We highly recommend this book as a laudably clear and readable primer on censorship generally and on the issue of harm to minors in particular, as well as the attacks on Internet freedom that are being promoted in the name of protecting children.
For more about this book, check out the review and interview with Marjorie at Salon.com. (2 July 2001)
When the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) refused to give their stamp of approval to seven hard core videos, the maker of those videos, Sheptonhurst, turned around and appealed to the Video Appeals Committee. The VAC rejected the BBFC's claim that the videos threatened harm to children. The BBFC appealed this to the High Court, which concluded that the VAC had it right. This left the BBFC with little choice but to draw up new guidelines allowing more explicit material in erotic videos. So, it seems, you can now show penetration, erections, and genital contact, including oral sex. (Some movie-makers doubt, however, that many close-up shots will be permitted.) The new guidelines have appeared on the BBFC's site at http://www.bbfc.co.uk/.
R18 Videos - at last?
To no one's surprise, the papers were immediately full of the usual fulminations, especially from our beloved Home Secretary, Jack Straw, the man who made us miss Michael Howard. Straw has already been trying to get around the fact that pornography itself isn't really illegal under current law by removing the right to jury trial of those accused of obscenity violations - if no jury has to say it's obscene, the government can make up charges about anything it likes.
The Home Office appears to have given up on trying to find some voodoo to simply overturn the High Court decision and has now produced a Consultation Paper on the Regulation of R18 Videos, attempting to heap even more restrictions onto the category (which can only be sold in sex shops as it is - and there aren't that many such places in the entire country) and increase the the number of offenses and the penalties involved in violating those restrictions. The document can be downloaded as a .pdf file at www.homeoffice.gov.uk/consult/r18video.pdf)
Submissions in response to the Consultation Paper are due in October. We hope you will join us in going over it carefully and addressing the points it raises. Naturally, it begins with the assumption that seeing erections and penetration will harm children, and that something must be done! (30 August 2000).
This is slated to become law in October 2000, but there is so much nonsense floating around about it (most of it from the government, of course) that we thought you might like to know why you should write to your MP to ask why the government still hasn't answered the biggest questions about it. Here they are:
The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIP)
- Still a threat
1. Why does this bill create a new kind of crime?
The bill makes it an offence, punishable by two years' imprisonment, not to give the authorities your passwords or decryption keys on demand.
Now, historically, you might be charged with obstruction of justice or contempt of court if you refused to provide some material to the police in an investigation, but there is no specific crime of "failure to turn over a [specified, legal item]." Nope, not "failure to turn over your house key", not "failure to turn over your muddy Doc Martens", not even "failure to turn over your steak knives that look remarkably like the murder weapon."
That's not the only thing wrong with it, either. Normally, if the police confiscate your papers and some of them are in a language they don't speak, they can't demand that you teach them that language. But, in effect, that's what this part of the bill does by forcing you to turn over your passwords and keys - it's not just that you may have to tell them what a document says, but you have to make them actually able to read it on their own. Why should you?
2. Why is the definition of a "serious crime" so broad that it includes "conduct by a large number of persons in pursuit of a common purpose"?
It used to be that to tap someone's phone or read your mail, the authorities had to believe you were involved in a genuine threat to the security of the country. But under this bill, anyone committing "a serious crime" can be placed under surveillance. And a "serious crime" is conduct that "involves the use of violence, results in substantial financial gain or is conduct by a large number of persons in pursuit of a common purpose."
Interestingly, only one of those three things - violence - is actually a crime at all, let alone a serious one. And since when has mere "violence" justified a phone tap? Well, um, never, because most violence is interpersonal and has nothing to do with writing letters and telephoning people. What would be the point of reading the e-mail of someone who was in a pub fight? And who writes letters about the fact that they've been committing domestic violence? It's not exactly something you plot in advance with a group of conspirators. But the bill's language makes no distinction between one-off, unplanned, personal violence and genuine terrorist activity.
The last time we looked, it wasn't a crime at all to incur "substantial financial gain". Indeed, the Prime Minister often talks like he is actually intending to promote it. Hmm, that sounds like activity that might result in "substantial financial gain" - security services, take note!
As to "conduct by a large number of persons in pursuit of a common purpose", well, that would appear to cover the Boy Scouts, the Women's Institute, both houses of Parliament, the BBC, labour unions, the government - hey, just about everyone. Plan a big church picnic and suddenly you're committing "a serious crime". Blimey.
Come to think of it, though, that definition would also cover Amnesty International, Greenpeace, and - oh, my, Feminists Against Censorship!
3. Why does the bill require "black boxes" to send a direct feed of all internet traffic from providers when they only need data about specific individuals that could be supplied by the ISPs?
Let's be honest: The bill's combined features allow the government to look at all internet data all the time on the strength of only four individual warrants issued in a given year. They can legally look at the entire feed for the British Isles on one three-month warrant supposedly directed at a single individual; three months later, they can issue a warrant directed at a different individual. And so on in perpetuity.
The government can say all they want about how they don't intend to do anything like that, but they've written a bill that allows them to spy on everyone all the time, and they've refused to narrow it so that it only allows them to spy on people who are a genuine threat. We can only surmise from this that it's because they want to spy on people they shouldn't be spying on.
If you haven't been worried about RIP, or thought recent news stories about a government "climb-down" meant the problems with it were solved, get yourself over to the RIP information centre on the Foundation for Information Policy Research (FIPR) site and find out the details. (Summer 2000)