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First they came for the porn stars: the problem with an online filter

The idea that you can tackle misogyny with a porn filter or a plastic bag is one of the more ludicrous conceits of social conservatives in modern times.

A model leaves a photography studio after posing for pornographic shots
1955: A model leaves a photography studio after posing for pornographic shots, and walks out of the building into the light. Photo: Pryor/Three Lions/Getty Images

A few days ago, Conservatives received an email from David Cameron Himself, boasting of his new porn filter, a filter that will “protect childhood itself”. Underneath his signature, written in teeny-tiny text, was the message: “Blocked by your spam filter? Add bulletin@news.conservatives.com” to your address book.” Even the best filters still catch out the morally pure. 

The Co-op supermarket have implemented a filter of their own, demanding that lads’ mags be delivered in opaque modesty bags. The move comes after pressure from campaigns like “Lose the Lads’ Mags” run by Object and Feminista, who would prefer it if the Co-op would stop selling such titles altogether. Their spokesperson referred to the bags as ‘misogyny bags’, which is the point where the logic of their campaign falls apart.

Let’s take two examples, and in the comments below you can tell readers which you think is more misogynistic, more objectifying.  In the first example, Kelly Brook is on a beach, wearing a bikini. She has travelled there to work consensually with a photographer and editor on a professional collaboration, producing pictures on her terms that she likes. One of the pictures is printed on the front cover of FHM with a caption saying that Kelly Brook competes with the desert to see who’s hottest. It is obvious that she is looking at the camera, interacting consensually with the photographer.

In the second example, Kelly Brook is on a beach, wearing a bikini. She is on holiday. A paparazzi photographer takes pictures of her from an unflattering angle. They find their way to the desk of Heat magazine, who publish the picture on the front cover with the headline: “Does Kelly Brook look fat to you? Readers give their verdict.” Doubtless Heat would argue that they were joining the debate in Brook’s support, highlighting the absurdity of calling an obviously beautiful and healthy woman "fat". But if Heat really wanted to tackle the vile culture of body-policing that pervades modern media, they could simply choose not to participate in it.

The idea that you can tackle misogyny with a porn filter or a plastic bag is one of the more ludicrous conceits of social conservatives in modern times. The digital version of drug prohibition, it is a gesture to traditional values that allows politicians to give the impression of action without addressing the root issues. For all their talk about misogyny, campaigners seem more interested in tackling sexuality. For all their talk about the safety of porn stars, campaigners seem more interested in driving them out of their jobs than reforming the industry.

That’s the other effect of filters – they censor. Deborah Orr, writing in the Guardian, sees no problem with censorship. But then why should she? Orr is middle-class, and has regular access to a newspaper column in which to express her opinions. Her voice is safe, and if others aren’t that’s their problem. Her writing treats such people with contempt - women who enjoy "violent" porn are, to Orr’s eyes, picking up “useful tips on fictional rape”. But it’s precisely that sort of bigoted attitude to minority sexual preferences that inspires unease about the increasing efforts to censor the internet in accordance with "mainstream" tastes.

Of course for Deborah Orr there is no censorship, because Deborah Orr is a privileged middle-class woman with considerable personal agency – she can simply press the button at any time and have the filter deactivated. It doesn’t seem to occur to her that not everybody is in the same position. If you don’t own a house, if your landlord, partner (or abusive partner), parent, flatmate or university owns the connection, you may not have the same choice that Orr does. Anyone can choose not to seek out porn, not everyone can choose to have access to it.

And of course it won’t just be porn. It can’t be, because filters simply aren’t good enough to make a clear distinction. As Wired reported over the weekend, all other kinds of "objectionable" content could be included too. “As well as pornography, users may automatically be opted in to blocks on "violent material", "extremist related content", "anorexia and eating disorder websites" and "suicide related websites", "alcohol" and "smoking". But the list doesn't stop there. It even extends to blocking "web forums" and "esoteric material", whatever that is. "Web blocking circumvention tools" is also included, of course.”

To date, advocates of a porn filter have failed even to adequately define porn, let alone demonstrate that it causes significant harm in our society, or that a filter will have any impact in reducing that harm. Meanwhile the negative consequences of a filter are demonstrable. Thousands of people will be barred from legitimate exploration of their sexuality, and have their access to advice on sexual health, sexuality, and mental health issues removed. The most vulnerable people in society will be the least able to circumvent the block.

But that’s okay, because Daily Mail readers will be able to sleep soundly in the belief that they have made an import contribution in the war on misogyny.