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.

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.

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

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR