Britain’s harsh crackdown on Internet porn prompts free-speech debate

(Christopher Furlong/ Getty Images ) - A mourner wears a pink shirt and tucks the order of service in his pocket during the funeral service for April Jones in Machynlleth, Wales. Mark Bridger, 47, was found guilty of abducting, raping and murdering the 5-year-old.

(Christopher Furlong/ Getty Images ) - A mourner wears a pink shirt and tucks the order of service in his pocket during the funeral service for April Jones in Machynlleth, Wales. Mark Bridger, 47, was found guilty of abducting, raping and murdering the 5-year-old.

LONDON — In a land whose uptight reputation is belied by its wicked ways, the Conservative-led British government is in the midst of a crusade to enact some of the strictest curbs on pornography in the Western world.

The campaign follows the rape and slayings of two young girls by men seemingly addicted to online pornography. One of the children, 5-year-old April Jones, was buried Thursday after a nationally televised funeral.

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Just as in the United States, child pornography is already illegal here. But citing widely accessible brands of legal pornography for “corrupting childhood” and “normalizing sexual violence against women,” Prime Minister David Cameron has launched an all-out assault that opponents say is pitting state-sponsored morality against Internet freedom in one of the planet’s most open societies.

Family-friendly filters will soon be automatically installed when most new subscribers sign up for Internet service, with customers wishing to view pornography needing to make a conscious choice to turn them off. Before the end of next year, most of the 21 million wired households in Britain will also be placed in the awkward position of having to declare whether they want to keep access to legal online pornography or have it blocked by their telecommunications providers.

Cameron is also demanding that search engines such as Google and Yahoo create a “blacklist” of terms relating to child pornography that, when strung together, come back with no hits. His government is also moving to ban the possession of a broader range of images, including not only child pornography but also images depicting consenting adults engaged in violent acts such as simulated rape.

“We now have the ambition to make Britain the most family-friendly democracy in the world,” said Claire Perry, a member of Parliament from Cameron’s Conservative Party and his point person in the anti-pornography push.

Free-speech advocates, however, see a slippery slope — one that could eventually rob Britain of the moral authority to denounce government-imposed Internet filtration in countries such as China. Perhaps more than any other Western nation, critics say, Britain has become a test case for how and whether to more deeply police Internet images and social media in free societies.

Several Western nations already have limited policing of the Internet. Germany has long banned online material that, for instance, denies the Holocaust.

But Britain is putting in place some policies — and looking at others — that could result in a broader filtration of material from public view. For instance, after a British soldier was killed in a gruesome knife attack on a London street, allegedly by Islamist extremists, Britain’s Home Office created a task force to look at whether the government should do more to compel search engines to block extremist material — religious or political — that incites violence and indoctrinates youth.

Next month, executives from Google, Facebook, Twitter and other technology companies will be asked to appear at a parliamentary hearing in London on Internet security and safety — with British lawmakers studying the possibility of fresh guidelines or new legislation to combat everything from cyber-bullying to the ability of children to view explicit material online.

Critics say that by moving to expand the definition of illegal pornographic images to include so-called “rape porn,” the government will be creating a subjective system where empowered “censors” become the arbitrators of good taste. And in a world of increasingly risqué mainstream material — HBO’s hit “Game of Thrones,” for instance, depicts graphic sexual violence against women — free-speech advocates wonder where the lines of illegality may ultimately be drawn.

Meanwhile, rolling out Internet filter systems to such a large portion of British households, some argue, could easily create a tool for blocking other types of objectionable material. The British court system, for instance, has already begun tapping into such systems to demand the blocking of Web sites that infringe on copyrighted material.

“They wanted to block extreme pornography, and I said nothing, then they wanted to block material that infringed on copyrights, and I said nothing, and then they started to block Web sites with extreme messages that didn’t quite agree with the government line, and I still said nothing,” said Alex Bloor, business development manager at Andrews & Arnold, a British Internet service provider popular with computer savvy subscribers. “This is the thin end of a massive wedge.”

A death sparks debate

At the moment, however, the fiercest debate here is over pornography.

On Oct. 1 last year, Jones, a bright-eyed little girl, was playing near her home in Wales when she went missing. Her disappearance quickly sparked one of the biggest British manhunts of modern times.

The trail ultimately led to Mark Bridger, a 47-year-old who, according to court testimony, had “a library” of online child sexual abuse images — including child rape — downloaded on his laptop.

Such images are illegal and routinely blocked after an Internet watchdog group funded by the industry issues notifications to host sites and service providers. But the process can take time, and even then, blocked images can often be found on “mirrors” — or replicated sites in the dark recesses of the Internet. To find them, Bridger used Internet search terms including “naked young 5 year old girls.” In May, he was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.

Only fragments of bone were ever recovered. On Thursday, Jones’s remains were buried under sunny skies in her tiny Welsh town of Machynlleth. A sea of mourners in black and pink, her favorite color, soberly proceeded down streets lined with pink ribbons. Horses adorned with pink feathers drew a glass carriage with the coffin.

Even in liberal Britain, home of risqué humor and topless models on Page 3 of the Sun newspaper, the case fueled a debate over controls on pornography. In July, Cameron outlined the government’s response — a sweeping new crackdown, including his proposal for a “blacklist” of Internet search terms such as those used by Bridger.

His call, however, has met resistance from Internet firms and free-speech proponents who say a blacklist will be technically difficult, potentially ineffective and possibly disruptive to legitimate searches. Yet if the industry does not agree to his proposal by next month, Cameron has said the government may draft legislation to force them to comply.

“I simply don’t accept the argument that some of these companies have used to say that these searches should be allowed because of freedom of speech,” he said.

Filters prompt questions

Many of the measures are aimed at getting tougher on pedophiles. But they are also trying to scare off lurkers. If Internet users in Britain try to access blocked child pornography, for instance, instead of a simple error message they now receive a warning page stating they could lose their jobs and be denied access to their children if they persist.

The government has won agreement from major service providers to install family-friendly filters in the majority of public Wi-Fi spaces. But critics say those eager to find pornography can easily get around them even as filters complicate the lives of legitimate users. They cite the recent case of a man who was denied access to an online version of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” due to its “violent content” while doing research at London’s British Library.

“Free speech is not really something ingrained in the British psyche the way it is in the United States,” said Padraig Reidy, with the London office of the Index on Censorship. “If we go down the road of filtering, as is being suggested now, this is going to be very dangerous.”

Karla Adam contributed to this report.

 
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