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Deprave and corrupt

It's one of the curiosities of being a free speech advocate that you find yourself defending people for saying things you'd never say yourself.

I noticed this last week when a friend, after delivering an impassioned defense of the rights of bloggers to blog about the world around them - say, recounting the Nazi costumes people were wearing to the across-the-street neighbor's party last weekened or detailing the purchases your friend made in the drugstore - and then turned around and said she didn't know why she was defending it because she wouldn't actually put things like that in her blog. (Unless, I suppose, her neighbor was John McCain.)

Probably most bloggers have struggled at one point or another with the collision these tell-the-world-your-private-thoughts technologies create between freedom of speech and privacy. Usually, though, invading your own privacy is reasonably safe, even if that invasion takes the form of revealing your innermost fantasies. Yes, there's a lot of personal information in them thar hills, and the enterprising data miner could certainly find out a lot about me by going through my 17-year online history via Google searches and intelligent matching. But that's nothing to the situation Newcastle civil servant Darryn Walker finds himself in after allegedly posting a 12-page kidnap, torture, and murder fantasy about the pop group Girls Aloud.

As unwise postings go, this one sounds like a real winner. It was (reports say) on a porn site; it named a real pop group (making it likely to pop up in searches by the group's fans); and identified as the author was a real, findable person - a civil servant, no less. A member of the public reported the story to the Internet Watch Foundation, who reported it to the police, who arrested Walker under the Obscene Publications Act.

The IWF's mission in life is to get illegal content off the Net. To this end, it operates a public hotline to which anyone can report any material they think might be illegal. The IWF's staff sift through the reports - 31,776 in 2006, the last year their Web site shows statistics for - and determines whether the material is "potentially illegal". If it is, the IWF reports it to the police and also recommends to the many ISPs who subscribe to its service that the material be removed from their servers. The IWF so far has focused on clearly illegal material, largely pornographic images, both photographic and composited, of children. Since 2003, less than 1 percent of illegal images involving children is hosted in the UK.
As a cloistered folksinger I had never heard of the very successful group Girls Aloud; apparently they were created like synthetic gemstones in 2002 by the TV show Popstars: the Rivals. According to their Wikipedia entries, they're aged 22 to 26 - hardly children, no matter how unpleasant it is to be the heroines of such a violent fantasy.

So the case poses the question: is posting such a story illegal? That is, in the words of the Obscene Publications Act, is it likely to "deprave and corrupt"? And does it matter that the site to which it was posted is not based in the UK?

It is now several decades since any text work was prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act, and much longer since any such prosecution succeeded. The last such court case, the 1976 prosecution against the publishers of Inside Linda Lovelace apparently left the Metropolitan Police believing they couldn't win . In 1977, a committee recommended excluding novels from the Act. Novels, not blog postings.

Succeeding in this case would therefore potentially extend the IWF's - and the Obscene Publications Unit's - remit by creating a new and extremely large class of illegal material. The IWF prefers to use the term "child abuse images" rather than "child pornography"; in the case of actual photographs of real incidents this is clearly correct. The argument for outlawing composited or wholly created images as well as photographs of actual children is that pedophiles can use them to "groom" their targets - that is, to encourage their participation in child abuse by convincing them that these are activities that other children have engaged in and showing them how. Outlawing text descriptions of real events could block child abuse victims from publishing their own personal stories; outlawing fiction, however disgusting seems a wholly ineffectual way of preventing child abuse. Bad things happen to good fictional characters all the time.

So, as a human being I have to say that I not only wouldn't write this piece, I don't even want to have to read it. But as a free speech advocate I also have to say that the money spent tracking down and prosecuting its writer would have been more effectively spent on...well, almost anything. The one thing the situation has done is widely publicize a story that otherwise hardly anyone knew existed. Suppressing material just isn't as easy as it used to be when all you had to do was tell the publisher to get it off the shelves.

Of course, for Walker none of this matters. The most likely outcome for him in today's environment is a ruined life.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).


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