It’s rude, ban it by Quentin Bates

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It’s not all that often that Iceland gets a mention in the mainstream press overseas, and generally it’s because of volcanic or financial upheaval. But the idea floated by Iceland’s interior minister, Ögmundur Jónasson, has seen a few column inches about his pipe dream of banning pornography in Iceland. In fact, porn is already supposed to be illegal in Iceland. What Ögmundur has in mind is to set up a string of virtual barriers to stop internet porn reaching Iceland.

Could it be done? I’m no technogeek, but it seems pretty far-fetched to me. China and several other places have largely successfully managed to restrict access to Facebook and dissident websites, but that’s surely a far cry from blocking off half the internet.

Now I’m wondering if the Reality Check is available in China?

But back to Ögmundur and the porn. While China and other countries where personal freedoms aren’t high on the agenda can block off this and that, those are places where the internet isn’t as universal as it is in Iceland. It’s surely easier to restrict access to something people have never had than to take away what presumably a large proportion of internet users expect to see. Banning anything that people have already become used to would be a task of Augean proportions.

Then there’s the sinister side of this that begs the question of what else might the Icelandic government want to stop people seeing? The censorship implications are disturbing. This stuff is the hallmark of police states, not comfy democracies, and whatever Iceland’s shortcomings, it’s not a police state.

But is it a problem? Is there are large number of internet users who are porn addicts? I’m not saying that porn is a good and wonderful thing; just wondering aloud if the Icelandic government has done its homework on all this.

As I may have mentioned before, Iceland has an underlying puritanical liking for these blanket bans that don’t necessarily work. Do ministers really think that passing a law means that something just happens, almost as if by magic? As it is, strip clubs, prostitution and a great many drugs are illegal in Iceland. While the strip clubs have been closed down, I don’t doubt that a hooker can be found easily enough, as the activities of the Big Sister group demonstrate. Plus there are drugs everywhere, ranging from top-quality illicit booze to super-strength genetically modified grass and a bewildering array of chemicals – partly attributable to the eye-watering prices of legal booze.

The underfunded and understaffed police force has enough on its plate already without being asked to lock up people watching internet porn, not to mention dealing with the inevitable black market that would appear. The reality is that there is a demand for this stuff, and where there’s demand there will be suppliers as an underground network would inevitably appear. There are geeks in back bedrooms everywhere who would bend all their energies to bypassing any firewall, and they would undoubtedly be successful.

Supposing the idea gets taken a little further; who decides what’s porn and what isn’t? Maybe the interior ministry would have to set up a Porn Czar in sound-proofed offices where a team of pornography arbiters spend their days watching everything that the internet streams, deciding whether or not it constitutes pornography. Who writes the guidelines? Would Ögmundur personally have to spend days watching assorted tacky grumbleflicks so he can tell his officials what should be banned and what shouldn’t?

It’s never going to be easy to decide what constitutes porn and what doesn’t. Tastes and standards change. MTV and a few other channels now stream daytime mainstream music videos that are practically as raunchy as the stuff that qualified for the top shelves a decade or two ago. What about people’s own naughty snaps and videos? Do they become illegal, even though consenting adults are involved and exploitation isn’t part of the mix? Then there are the fine lines between pornography and erotica that hollow-cheeked civil servants would have to make a call on. There’s plenty of low-grade titillation about that could be dubbed porn, while there’s harder core stuff that can be judged as artistic, and could therefore escape the pornography label. This is something that would inevitably find itself in court at some point, and it could drag on interminably.

Without wanting to speak up for the porn business any more than I’d want to be an advocate for crack, slavery or child labour, banning it isn’t any kind of a solution. A ban on anything simply drives it underground and into the welcoming arms of a black market to ratchet up prices and control the flow of goods far more effectively that government can ever hope to.

It’s not likely to happen. Ögmundur Jónasson’s Left-Green party, part of the present unhappy government and in power for the first time in years, is likely to be out of office this year. The Left-Greens have torn themselves apart with horse trading and internal strife, and are likely to be slaughtered at the next elections. So a porn firewall seems unlikely to become a reality, that is unless the incoming government, once they have finished bickering about who sits where in the new coalition, decides it’s a baton worth picking up – but somehow it seems they may have more pressing problems to be dealing with.

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