13 July 2012

Inquiry Calls for United Response to On-line Porn

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In April this year, an independent and cross-party U.K. Parliamentary group released the Report of its Inquiry into Online Child Protection. The Inquiry was conducted not only with the working team of Conservative, Labour and cross-bench members, but was supported by 60 other British Parliamentarians. It was prompted by some of the findings of the 2011 Report Letting Children Be Children: Report of the Independent review of the Commercialisation and Sexualisation of Childhood (October 2011).

Last year’s Bailey Report (named after its author Reg Bailey, CEO of the Mothers’ Union) found in relation to the accelerated sexualisation and exposure of children that: “Some parts of the business world and sections of the media seem to have lost their connection to parents and this is compounded in some new media where there is limited regulation.”

The Bailey Report also found that: “parents have told us that they feel they cannot make their voices heard, and that they often lack the confidence to speak out on sexualisation and commercialisation issues for fear of being labelled a prude or out of touch.”

This year’s Parliamentary Inquiry Report therefore intended to assess both the impact of the pornified media upon children and adolescents in the wake of the on-line revolution and to recommend realistic steps in child protection, at various levels of society but particularly by involving parents more directly.

The Inquiry was able to map useful and recent statistics within Britain, which back up the disturbing trends in other Western countries (including those upon which the recent recommendations of the Australian Medical Association were made).

The Report found that four out five mid-teenagers accessed pornography on a regular basis. It discovered that as many as one in three 6-7 year olds had already been exposed to “degrading”, violent or explicit sexual material. The Report also noted an interlinking web of negative on-line influences which included sexually explicit, violent, self-destructive (pro-anorexia and pro-self-harming sites) and pro-suicide material.

The Parliamentary inquiry also called for an “urgent” meeting between British service providers, public institutions and Government in order that some active response be proposed in the face of the closing technological gap between internet, camera, cable, portable data-storage devices and smart phone platforms- all of which enable destructive and abusive material to be more explicitly, readily and privately accessed.

The Report also identified an “exploding” problem created by the converging interface between media forms which means that pornography is no longer flowing in a simple two way traffic- from producer to user. The report found that over 12% of young teenagers were creating their own porn images—“sexting” explicit messages or photos of themselves. Other reports have confirmed this as well as children and teenagers creating their own “child” pornography by exploiting and abusing other under-age sexual partners and younger siblings or relatives.

Reports to the Inquiry also reveal that in the world of children, the seamless interaction between pornography and social networking sites and chat rooms destroys forever the consoling fiction that there is an ethical and psychological Rubicon between mental images and virtual “fantasy” on one side, and embodied acting out of abusive sexual activity on the other. It is an almost invisible divide for many adults in any case.

Also as a result of the “portability” of on-line material, there is a great increase in the “privatisation” of children’s access. For children privatisation is not, as some well-meaning parents imagine a place for trust and maturity, but rather increases their risk to exposure to the grooming and manipulation of predatory on-line abusers. The Inquiry found that over 60% of 11 t0 16 year olds have on-line access in their own rooms which is twice the number surveyed in 2004. Among the 7-10 age group- over 41% have private access to the internet – compared to 9% in 2004.

It is about the disruption of this “cosy” private bedroom zone that the Report heard a fairly unified wave of concern: “Repeatedly, witnesses raised concerns over the type of pornography available, described as “not porn as we know it”, and also told the Panel of the ease with which users can click through a hierarchy of imagery to reach violent, degrading and coercive material.”

The Inquiry also heard from a variety of adolescent health clinics and professionals. The mental health fall-out and the social dysfunction caused by early use of pornography was well attested by these. One clinic reported that over 25% of its patients were not only using but were compulsively “dependent” upon increasingly extreme forms of pornography. The Report also found that:

Overuse of pornographic material has been shown to desensitise children and young people to violent or sexually aggressive acts, diminish sympathy for victims of sexual assault and reduce children’s own inhibitions, making them more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

The Report allocated the remainder of its deliberation to the practical and ethical duties of national (British) internet service providers, the resources and education which parents needed to take the lead in protecting their children and the mounting difficulties associated with various forms of internet filtering. The Inquiry did prod Government to take a more active role in providing principles upon which safety devices and systems might be installed, perhaps in a way analogous to the guidelines of health promotion campaigns:

Government and industry representatives should draw up guidelines for improving the communication of existing internet safety settings, improving training for retailers, developing a family friendly kite-marking scheme for manufacturers and retailers and improving signposting to pre-installed security settings during device configuration.

The Chair of the Parliamentary Inquiry was the Conservative MP for Devizes Constituency, Claire Perry, who demonstrated a particular concern for the sense of “parental powerlessness”. At the conclusion of the Inquiry, she identified the problem that parents and other caring adults frequently reported which was their inability to keep up with the technological proficiency of children—born and raised within a totally digitalised culture. She noted in her Press release: “While parents should be responsible for their children's online safety, in practice people find it difficult to put content filters on the plethora of internet-enabled devices in their homes, plus families lack the right information and education on internet safety.”

Its recommendations acknowledged and demonstrated the vexing ideological and practical difficulties of Internet Service Provider level filtering and Government intervention. If there is any criticism to be made of the Report, it is its attempt to tip-toe around any defining statement about the ethics of the “adult” use of pornography. This meant that the discussion of “filters” was weighed down by those arguing for the right of access to so-called “respectable pornography” and much discussion about a “watershed” in a young person’s age—after which pornography passed from a destructive to an apparently neutral or desirable consumable. The Report at times rested its assumptions upon fairly conservative “free-market” liberalism: Underpinning the system are core principles - almost religious tenets – of decentralisation and freedom which mean that every piece of information and content is available and accessible somewhere. It would be anathema to see these principles compromised.

A number of Service Providers and porn-site managers attempted to defend before the Panel of Inquiry an absolute freedom of speech right for their “businesses”, failing to acknowledge that “freedom of speech” is not absolute within democracies but is moderated in the interests of the common good by instruments such as defamation, copyright and perjury laws. The Inquiry did well in the face of these challenges to tackle the question of freedom of access with some fairly positive recommendations. 

It recommended that: “The Government should launch a formal consultation on the introduction of an Opt-In content filtering system for all internet accounts in the UK. The most effective way to reduce overall development cost and create the most flexible solution would be for ISPs to work together to develop a self-regulated solution”.

The Inquiry recognised that in many Western countries subscribers must actively, and with considerable application and technological know-how, “opt-out” of so-called open access via their server. Such access does not lead to “neutral freedom” but exposes both unsuspecting adults and children to extreme pornography and violence—so this recommendation at least enables a default position of some protection within the community.

It would be good to see the recommendations of this Report in dialogue with more radical critiques of contemporary on-line pornography, and the globalised interests that generate and promote it. The contributions of some leading anti-pornography feminist commentators, virtue ethicists and citizen action groups such as Australia’s Collective Shout, would have deepened the Perry Report’s social and philosophical handle upon the active and proselytizing nature of “porn culture”.

There is however in the Report a refreshing recognition of some difficult realities about 21st century life—pornography is no longer a raging external fire outside the perimeter of the home or school culture but a series of unpredictable self-igniting spot fires within our private spaces.