31 October: Good or bad? Harmful or not? Legal or illegal? – the challenge of regulating internet content

Athens- 31 October 2006


What is harmful content? What constitutes illegal content? What is pornography? Should content be regulated? These were some of the key questions addressed by the participants at today’s panel discussion “Content regulations from gender and development perspective” organized by the Association for Progressive Communications - Women's Networking Support Programme (APC WNSP) in the ongoing Internet Governance Forum.


The panelists were Hanne Sophie Greve of the Gulating High Court of Norway; Namita Malhotra of the Alternative Law Forum in India; Malcolm Hutty, of the London Internet Exchange, United Kingdom; and Michael Silber, from the Wireless Application Service Providers' Association, the Republic of South Africa. APC Board Chairperson Natasha Primo moderated the session.


These were some of the points that came out in the interaction between the panelists and the audience: What is harmful to one set of users may not necessarily be harmful to another. What is illegal in one country may be legal in another. However, because of the open and boundary-less nature of the internet, the legality or illegality of online content becomes very debatable. According to Greve, the Council of Europe is concerned about how harmful content is defined. In so far as legality is concerned, the European Court of Human Rights decides when it is prescribed by law and when it is necessary within the functioning of a democratic society.” In general, there was a consensus that censorship and content regulation puts the open, free and unrestricted nature of the internet at risk.


The workshop participants also discussed pornography at length. The fundamental question was: what is pornography? Malhotra defined it as “pornography is the theory” and “rape is the practice.” She expounded by asking “what kind of speech is pornography? Is it illegal? It depends on your location –which means that if there are no anti-pornography laws in your country, it is not illegal. Is it something that is just sexually explicit? Is pornography directly related to sexual violence against women?” She further explained that [if it is something you do not agree with] and it is there [when you surf the net], the only way to deal with speech is more speech. This means, we should say our piece; we should respond. “There should be discussion on what is permissible. If we give up debating, then we are giving up the space.”


My own reflection brings me back to the various feminist discussions on pornography. There are actually three feminist positions on pornography: The first one and the most common is that pornography is an expression of male culture through which women are objectified, commodified and exploited. This is in line with the ‘pornography is rape in theory’ position. The second one is the liberal position which combines respect to freedom of expression with the principle “a woman's body, a woman's right.” This second position is taken by women who may not necessarily approve of pornography but believe that everyone has the right to express themselves and appreciate or consume media and artistic productions of their choice. The third one is taken by ‘pro-sex’ feminists’ who maintain that pornography has benefits for women.


Going back to the panel discussion, the participants all agreed that child pornography is something that should be illegal in any context. But again confronted with the current nature of the internet, combatting child pornography seems impossible. A number of participants pointed out to education as the only long-term solution. This means educating children in accordance with their family and cultural values. At least three participants cited experiences in educating children about the media and how they should examine the images they see in the media.


Responding to the questions “how do you measure the success of current initiatives to protect vulnerable groups? How do you involve those people you wish to protect?,” I cited the efforts of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) to protect young people from harmful online content by distributing internet cards that filter (what the Catholic church considers) undesirable materials on the internet. These internet cards are distributed to students in catholic schools in the Philippines. While the CBCP may consider this as an effort to protect young people, I see this as a concern [because it disempowers children and their parents or guardians by not allowing them to decide what is good and what is bad for them based on the values they adhere to]. While I reinforced the suggestion that the best approach to countering harmful internet content is media education, I also reminded the participants that we should know who is providing such education as various organizations involved in this kind of advocacy also have different agenda to promote.


Another audience member asked what if it is youth on youth pornography? Given the easy access to the new technologies, some children take photos of their naked friends or siblings and pass these around. Or what if the pornographic material being circulated is animated and doesn’t contain actual photos of children? What if the porn actors are adults acting as children? Could all those be considered child pornography? Is it possible to penalize them? These are some of the gray areas that need to be addressed.


There were no concrete resolutions arrived at but everyone in the workshop seemed to have agreed on two points: 1. that those who are concerned about harmful content should go to the source of the harm – the content provider and 2. that the best course of action at this point is to educate vulnerable groups.

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