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Extreme porn, me and you

The CPS's decision to charge Simon Walsh for possession of extreme porn was an attempt to criminalise a huge proportion of the population.

One man, one jar, and a lot of condoms. Photograph: Getty Images

If there are any references in this piece which you don't understand, do not search for them at work. Or at all. All the links, on the other hand, are safe for work.

As David Allen Green has written, the attempted conviction of Simon Walsh for charges of possession of "extreme pornography" was shameful and nasty. Set aside the fact that the CPS has got into similar trouble before, set aside the fact that no good reason has been offered as to why Walsh was even under investigation in the first place, set aside the atrocious standards of evidence offered by the prosecution; if this is how the CPS feels section 63 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, which criminalises possession of "extreme porn", should be applied, they will have to prosecute a huge number of people. Including me.

Like pretty much anyone who's lived on the internet for long enough, I've had my fair share of extreme porn sent to me as a "shock image". Someone sends you an email, or an IM, with a tantalising description – "lol, look at this", "have you heard about what happened in Leeds?" or, yes, "wow, [hot young thing] naked" – but when you click on the link, in a cruel bait-and-switch you are taken to a very different site.

The most famous of these images is known as Goatse. It depicts a man bent over, stretching his anus to a seemingly impossible degree. It is far beyond mere fisting, and probably does carry a risk of serious injury (although when Gawker attempted to track down the man depicted, they found he was most likely a very experienced practitioner of the skill). In a wonderful example of desensitisation, most people who have seen it more than a couple of times start to become blasé about the whole thing, and notice details which tend to pass them by the first time they look at it; the wedding ring on the man's finger, for instance, or the mole on his buttock.

For whatever reason, while the law attacks some types of extremity, it bypasses others, so some of the worst examples - typically featuring coprophilia, and a lot of it – probably remain unactionable (unless eating shit leads threatens a person's life, it seems).

Flash video allowed the shocks to spread beyond just pictures. "One man one jar", for instance, which shows a man squatting over a jar causing it to shatter, definitely depicts serious injury to a person's anus. It also spawned a cottage industry of "reaction videos" – people filming themselves or others watching the thing, usually for the first time. One of my friends even subjected her own mother to it to make one. Of course, everyone in those videos could be prosecuted for possession of extreme porn, and face jail terms of up to three years.

Given how the CPS seems to define "possession", seeing it online pretty much guarantees they think you've "possessed" it. Walsh was prosecuted for, amongst other things, having some pictures of a man being fisted in his Hotmail account. The CPS couldn't even prove he'd opened the attachment. Given how webpages are cached, images viewed online typically remain in your "possession" for at least a short while after you look at them as well. So unless you are particularly tech-savvy, simply closing the window is not defence.

And all of this is just looking at people who accidentally viewed "extreme" porn. A whole lot of people deliberately seek it out.

In June this year, for instance, 4000 people from Britain searched for "fisting" on Yahoo and Bing, according to Microsoft search intelligence (interestingly, 37 per cent of them were women, compared to just 29 per cent of the 1,000,000 people who search for "porn" each month). Given those two search engines have a roughly 7 per cent market share in this country, it seems likely that close to 60,000 people search for fisting every month.

If the CPS had succeeded in its prosecution of Walsh, would it begin tracking down them all?

My own experience has died down a bit since the act was passed in 2008. I still get the bait and switch links – now via Twitter, and made easier with the use of URL shorteners to hide the source – but the trend seems to have moved on to Catman, a relatively harmless picture of a naked fat man wearing cat ears. And when you've seen one man pulling shards of broken glass out of his bowels, you've rather seen them all. But Gmail archives everything, and I'm still using the same computer I have been all this time. I hope they don't decide to baselessly search it, or I'm not really sure what my defence would be.