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 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.

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

Martin Robbins is a Berkshire-based researcher and science writer. He writes about science, pseudoscience and evidence-based politics. Follow him on Twitter as @mjrobbins.

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Theresa May's Article 50 letter fires the Brexit starting gun

But as well as handing over a letter, Theresa May hands over control of the process. 

So the starting gun will be fired, and the Brexit process will begin. The delivery of the letter from Theresa May to Donald Tusk is a highly symbolic moment. It is also, crucially, the moment when the Prime Minister loses control of the process.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the Brexit process to date has been the remarkable degree of control exercised over it by Downing Street. Brexit means Brexit, declared the Prime Minister, and since that day it has been her who has defined what precisely it does mean. After a quarter century of bitter division over Europe, culminating in a referendum where the Parliamentary party was split down the middle, she has managed to unite the overwhelming majority of the Conservative party for a “hard Brexit” that very few claimed to support a year ago.  As an impotent opposition and ineffective Tory opponents watched on, she has made it clear from the first that Britain will leave the single market and, almost certainly, the customs union. Rumours from Whitehall suggest that, whatever the concerns or doubts of line departments, these have been ignored or over-ruled.

Now, however, the Prime Minister has lost control of the process. Inevitably, given the relative strength of the parties’ negotiating positions, both the agenda and outcome of the talks will be determined largely by our European partners. It is of course true that they have an interest in preserving trade with us, as do we with them; nor do they have any interest, either economic or political, in “punishing” us for the sake of it. That being said, our interests and theirs are far from aligned. They have other priorities. Not allowing cherry picking among EU rules is one. Ensuring Britain pays its fair share is another.

And, while it is in neither side’s interest for the talks to collapse, we have considerably more to lose. May’s claim that “no deal is better than a bad deal” may play well with the Daily Express, but is has not gone down well with UK business. As the economics professor Jonathan Portes sets out here, the consequences of “no deal” would go far beyond the mere imposition of tariffs; the economic impacts would be significant for other EU countries, and very  severe indeed for the UK.  There are increasing signs that ministers are, belatedly, appreciating the risks, and are anxious to avoid such an outcome.

So both sides want a deal – and the UK, at least, needs one. But several hurdles stand in the way. In the first place, there is the vexed question of money. Britain, as our partners are concerned, has outstanding liabilities that must be paid. The British government may accept some of these, but is sure to quibble about the sums. Discussions of money are never easy in the EU, and the task of figuring out what a net contributor to the budget might owe at a time when discussions over the new 5 year funding programme are about to start will be no exception.  Nevertheless, if it were simply left to the civil servants, no doubt an acceptable compromise would be reached. The bigger  issue  is whether Mrs May  is prepared to take on some of her own backbenchers – and, more importantly, sections of the UK press – to sell a deal that will inevitably mean that the UK writes a sizeable cheque.

Second, there is the question of how to ensure the "frictionless" trade of which the Prime Minister has spoken. This makes eminent sense on one level – why make trade more difficult with the partner that buys 44 per cent of our exports? On another, though, it is hard to see how she can deliver.

I for one simply lack the imagination to see how we can be sufficiently out of the customs union to allow us to sign our own trade deals, while sufficiently in it to avoid customs checks and tariffs. For another, it is difficult to foresee conditions under which the EU would allow us to enjoy any of the benefits of the single market – whereby states accept each other’s rules and standards – without the oversight provided by the European Court of Justice.

And finally, since all parties now seem to accept that the prospects of concluding an “ambitious and comprensive” trade deal by March 2019 are vanishingly, there is the question of what happens then. The government has talked about an “implementation phase”; but how do you have an “implementation phase” when you do not know exactly what you are trying to implement?

It could just be me. I may simply not have fathomed the subtle devices that might allow these circles to be squared. But it does seem clear to me that doing so would be far from straightforward.

And then, of course, whatever is negotiated needs to be approved. Forget for a moment the continent, where there has probably never been a worse time to try to get a free trade deal approved by 27 European parliaments. The Prime Minister will almost certainly have parliamentary problems here in the UK.

The Labour party has adopted a position whereby they will vote against any deal that does not provide the “exact same benefits” as we currently have as members of the single market and customs union,” to quote Keir Starmer. If the other member states are to be believed, the full benefits of membership are, and will be, only available to members, so this is will simply not be the case.

Labour, then, will probably end up voting against the bill. What Tories opposed to either Brexit or to leaving the single market might then do is anyone’s guess. It may be that, by autumn of 2018, they feel sufficiently empowered  - either because of a shift in public opinion, or because of indications of falling economic confidence, or, conceivably, because of declining faith in the Prime Minster – to make common cause with the opposition.

Under such circumstances, May might face the real possibility of defeat in Parliament. Which in turn poses the question as to why she would she risk putting a deal that might be rejected to a vote?

It seems to me that she would have very little incentive to do so. If she cannot get the kind of deal that seems, on the surface, impossible to get anyway, surely better, from her point of view to simply walk away? Blaming the Europeans for failure would be all to easy. And holding a snap election on a patriotic ticket and opposed by the current Labour party would guarantee a healthy majority.

Two years is a long time in politics. And much that is unexpected will doubtless transpire during the negotiations to come. Do not, however, discount the possibility that it might all go wrong. 

Anand Menon is director of The UK in a Changing Europe and professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King's College London.