Can Iceland succeed in its bid to ban online pornography?

Printed pornography is already banned in Iceland, but there is scepticism over new plans to ban online porn, writes Dan Buckley

‘If you’re paying for porn, you’re doing it wrong. Hacktivists will have a heyday with this one. You’d probably be able to circumvent the firewall with a VPN anyway’

THE above quote, in tech-speak, is one blogger’s response to attempts by Iceland to become the first Western democracy to block online pornography.

Iceland’s government is drawing up legislation to put in place a sweeping ban that would prevent its citizens from viewing or downloading certain X-rated material deemed particularly offensive or damaging to children.

Being drafted by the interior minister Ögmundur Jónasson, it aims to block the corrosive effects of pornography on young people by filtering access to pornographic images and videos via smartphones, computers, and game consoles.

Rejecting charges of censorship, Jónasson points to the social problems he claims porn causes, telling Britain’s Daily Telegraph that “violent pornography... has a very harmful effect on young people and can have a clear link to incidences of violent crime”.

A law forbidding the making and distribution of printed pornography is already on the statute books in Iceland, but Jónasson’s proposal would extend the ban to the internet. Methods being considered include enacting laws making it illegal to use Icelandic credit cards to purchase porn and filtering out IP addresses that lead to pornographic sites.

“If we can send a man to the moon, we must be able to tackle porn on the internet,” Halla Gunnarsdóttir, political adviser to Ögmundur, told the Daily Mail.

Setting aside the fact that it was the Americans, not Icelanders, who put a man on the moon, it ignores the reality that today’s teenagers have more computing power in their hands than the whole of Nasa did in 1969 when Neil Armstrong took his “giant leap for mankind”.

Web filters, blocked addresses, and criminalising the use of credit cards to access porn sites are among the methods being explored. If the plan is to check the merchant code of the payment providers, that will miss a whole swathe of credit card transactions because most payments are taken by a third-party service dedicated to facilitating all services, not just porn. Also, online payment systems are cryptographically secure.

In any event, as the blogger points out, “if you’re paying for porn, you’re doing it wrong”.

In other words, banning the use of credit cards will not go very far in blocking access to porn sites, particularly for savvy internet natives; ie, anybody under 40.

The powers that be in Iceland are also looking at setting up a nationwide firewall, akin to what is known as “the great firewall of China” which blocks foreign internet sites. Even the Chinese have not fully mastered that one.

Research shows that internet porn is accessed mostly by young males, so it is safe to assume that they will consider this as yet another technical challenge. The use of VPN referred to by the blogger is a case in point.

A virtual private network (VPN) extends a private network across the internet. It enables a host computer to send and receive data across public networks as if it were a private network. Its legitimate use includes allowing employees to access their company’s intranet (internal computer network) from home or while travelling outside the office.

However, a VPN can also be used to circumvent a firewall designed to block access to certain websites. The Icelanders have their work cut out while they insist that the proposal is not about censorship, nor is it anti-sex.

“We are a progressive, liberal society when it comes to nudity, to sexual relations, so our approach is not anti-sex but anti-violence. This is about children and gender equality, not about limiting free speech,” said Gunnarsdóttir. “It is anti-violence because young children are seeing porn and acting it out. That is where we draw the line. This material is blurring the boundaries for young people about what is right and wrong.

“Research shows that the average age of children who see online porn is 11 in Iceland and we are concerned about that and about the increasingly violent nature of what they are exposed to.”

Iceland has already outlawed strip clubs, a move which led The Guardian to proclaim Iceland a global leader in feminism in 2010.

Prostur Jonasson of Iceland’s Association of Digital Freedom has branded the proposals as unfeasible, saying that ensuring internet service providers block pornography would require content to go through a filter, meaning that someone will have the role of deciding what is OK and what is not. In other words, a censor-in-chief.

Such a notion has been declared laughable by technology website Gizmodo, which says it would make liberal Iceland a member of less-than-laudable league of nations: “By banning access to internet porn, Iceland will join countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and other temples of democracy widely known to protect women and children rights.”

Censoring porn would also fly in the face of attempts by Iceland to enshrine freedom of speech into its laws. Known as the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, it aims to codify the strongest free speech laws drawn from around the globe into Icelandic law.

Smari McCarthy, a part Irish, part Icelandic information activist, is executive director of the International Modern Media Initiative, which is based in Iceland.

He has branded the anti-porn measure “fascist” and Ögmundur Jónasson, the interior minister, “insane”.

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