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    Why Does Iceland's Proposed Porn Ban Matter?

    Written by

    Derek Mead

    Editor-In-Chief

    This Icelandic housecat may have to deal with a porn-free web soon. Via Flickr

    Iceland, land of hot springs and jerk youth hockey teams, is not down with porn. The normally-left-leaning country is concerned with the effects of readily-available online porn on children and women, and thus is discussing setting up a wide-ranging set of filters–similar in concept to China's Great Firewall–to scrub the dirty web clean.

    Bummer if you're an Icelander who digs porn or a free web, but should Internet fans elsewhere be getting worked up about what a tiny Nordic country is doing? Absolutely, as it highlights a worrisome trend of Western officials' pigheaded approaches to trying to regulate the Web.

    First, the dirt on Iceland's war on smut: Iceland Interior Minister Ogmundur Jonasson is currently drafting the anti-porn legislation, which reportedly (and vaguely) is designed to block access to porn by young people on any web-enabled devices. Import, publication, and distribution of offline porn is already illegal in Iceland–although the ban's murky definition of "porn" has led to hilarious vignettes of confused police–and Jonasson apparently wants to update the pre-Internet law to focus on "violent" porn. But first he wants to see if an Internet ban is even feasible.

    "I want to give the committee the task of examining the legal definition of pornography," he told the Reykjavik Grapevine. "At the same time, the plan includes examining what measures the police can take to enforce the law and limit access to pornography."

    Whether a complete porn ban is even possible is a question with a rather definite answer: It's not. Sure, setting up a firewall to block major porn sites is totally feasible, but also likely able to be circumvented by VPNs and the like. And even then, porn is an extremely diffuse product on the web. Would Iceland ban Reddit too? Even if it did, would it then have to ban Flickr and the stock image sites that have pictures of strippers? Facebook? It's an impossible task.

    Still, Jonasson's task force is trying. Halla Gunnarsdottir, an adviser to Jonasson, told the Daily Mail, "at the moment, we are looking at the best technical ways to achieve this. But surely if we can send a man to the moon, we must be able to tackle porn on the Internet."

    The focus of the ban appears to be on violent pornography, with Jonasson and others saying that increasingly violent pornography is harmful to those that appear in it as well as those who watch it. While "violent" isn't defined–and it's not clear if the ban would only apply to whatever violent pornography is defined as–it aligns with the thinking behind Iceland's two year old ban on strip clubs, which were considered to violate the civil rights of the women who worked in them.

    "There is a strong consensus building in Iceland," Gunnarsdottir said. "We have so many experts, from educationalists to the police and those who work with children behind this, that this has become much broader than party politics."

    Gunnarsdottir's comment is partly politicking, to be sure, but the porn ban does have its supporters. Now, that it would be the first Western nation to enact a porn ban is certainly news. And it is about porn, which might explain why the web has been buzzing with talk of the ban for the last week. But really, Iceland's its own country and can decide what it wants. Why should we really care?

    Porn or not, the ban matters because it's censorship on a scale not yet seen on the Western web. People mostly shrugged their shoulders when Egypt banned porn, because Egypt clamping down on its telecom industry isn't a big surprise. We don't stress about China's unending attempts to kill the internet because, hey, that's just what those power-hungry dudes in the Politburo do, and it's not really stopping anyone anyway. 

    But when Iceland, one of those progressive Nordic darlings that the Economist can't stop raving about, is thinking about knocking a whole bunch of the web offline, we ought to be concerned. Such a ban likely couldn't be copied in the US, where we still have some vestiges of the First Amendment, but Jonasson's proposal is just the latest piece of a trend towards Western nations regulating the web more strictly than they do other spaces.

    Remember that the porn ban idea isn't new; the UK was wrestling with (and eventually denied) the idea last year. Porn is fighting its own battle in the US, but seems pretty safe for now online. Instead, we've got the return of CISPA, which still allows companies to disclose private user info to the government without warrants. We've also got such an asinine system for copyright protection online that everyone from NASA to Retraction Watch can have their own original content yanked off the web because someone else claimed it as their own.

    Iceland's proposed porn ban represents all of the recent problems with governments flexing control over the web: Officials don't understand how the Internet works–comparing a space launch to controlling and blocking diffused data on the web is asinine, I'm sorry–and they continue to think of "Internet users" as a discrete bloc of constituents that are all a bunch of basement-dwelling porn-addict pirates that wouldn't vote anyway.

    The reality is that the Internet isn't the realm of a few savvy folks. It's used by everyone, even if officials ignore that. Designing wide-reaching legislation that bars access to large parts to the most important resource in existence today doesn't simply limit the people who shouldn't be doing that bad stuff.

    Instead, because regulators don't understand how the laws they're passing work nor do they understand (or care) just how many citizens they're targeting, we end up with laws that have more unintended effects that intended. For example, if Iceland really does ban porn, it either won't block everything, or will block too much. The same goes for the DMCA, and doubly so for CISPA, where the threat of "internet terrorists"–whose correspondence isn't going to be tracked anyway–is paving the way for warrantless spying on just about anything you do online.

    The fact is, there's simply no way to regulate the Internet with a scalpel. It's impossible, unless the answer is to bar all access to the Internet at large and replace it with a state-run intranet like Iran or North Korea. But lawmakers in the West increasingly seem to think that either they can, or more likely that citizens won't know or care enough to protest as the rights they'd expect IRL disappear online. 

    @derektmead

     

    Topics: free the network, Internet, CISPA, iceland, porn

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