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Wednesday, 12 October 2011

So with no internet, we had no porn, right?

The Micro-SD card is mightier than the filtered internet
The Mothers' Union should focus on the problem, not a sticking plaster of blocks and controls that will encourage parents to delegate their responsibility for the online safety of their children to their ISP.

When I went to school, the internet wasn't quite here.  For tech enthusiasts like myself (aka nerds) there was a kind of forerunner called Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs), but it's far too early in the post to digress.

So with no internet, we had no porn, right?

Yeah, like we had no music, no video and no printed colour glossy magazines to substitute for everything the internet provides today - including porn.  The ban (I'm not even sure it was even a legal ban) on newsagents selling porn to children didn't stop children accessing porn - it just made some kids rich and others more popular than they would otherwise be.

Some boys had wheeler-dealer enterprises Derek Trotter would envy. They got you anything; mags, videos, alcohol, hash.  The going rate for a second-hand magazine was the cover price new; and believe me, you didn't want to choose second hand unless it was all you could afford.

And whilst the young dragons ran their black market rackets, the nerds discovered an enterprising German coding outfit called Team BNK, who had cunningly crammed many seconds of reasonable quality pornographic video onto a 1.76MB floppy disk, playable on a Commodore Amiga computer.  There was also a nice range of picture disks available.  Mum, I never watched any - honest!

The beauty of the floppy disk is that it can be copied, practically endlessly.  Ample supply meant your mates would happily lend you such disks for free. (We had none of the artificial scarcity nonsense the record and film companies still to this day cling on to...)

There was a technical snag in that many unmodified Amigas couldn't hold 1.76MB in their memory, therefore one needed a second floppy disk drive - at considerable cost - to make an actual copy.  But there was always the enterprising nerd who could whisk you off a copy for a fraction of the price of a magazine.

But with no internet, how the hell did pornographic floppy disks make their way from Germany into a West Yorkshire playground?  Well there's another censorship story - the Obscene Publications Act made it a criminal offence back then to supply the type of pornography freely available today over the internet.  It was something to do with the angle of the dangle, but again I digress.

Which takes me back to the Bulletin Board Systems.  The father of a friend of a friend was involved with the running of one such board.  As well as a technical experiment - a forerunner to the internet - the board also served as a mechanism to transfer pornography from countries like Germany into the UK.

It wasn't cheap - even local transfer would take over half an hour using a 9.6kbps modem, costing around £1.80 in national phone call costs.  (From memory!)  But this is where computer shows, fairs and specialist computer shops came in.

The bits and bytes got into the country despite the Obscene Publications Act.  Under-the-counter sales to adults at computer shops and fairs would provide one of my school friends' older siblings with a copy.  And then it was copied - almost endlessly.

Today, the barriers are almost non-existent.  Thumbnail-sized memory cards store 20,000 times more data and can be hidden almost anywhere (including the convenient card reader in many mobile phones).  Video and pictures can be copied remotely, surreptitiously, via Bluetooth, outside the scope of any possible content filtering, as children sit on separate desks in the same class together.

No-one needs to bridge electronically the distance to a neighbouring European country to source the porn - they just need to visit an internet cafe or the house of a friend with liberal or naive parents.

The message is simple - you can't delegate your responsibilities as a parent to your internet service provider. Child content locks are just one tool - of limited use.  They will prevent most incidental or accidental exposure.  They will not prevent a half-determined half-digitally-literate child accessing potentially harmful content.

They will not stop your children trading porn in the playground, and a Micro-SD card is far easier to hide than a magazine.

With this in mind, we must question how far the state expects service providers to go in the name of child protection.  Blocking only has limited use, and to take blocking to the point that it infringes on other important rights and freedoms in the name of child protection - especially when the protection offered is minimal - is disproportionate.

Additionally, prohibition will inevitably lead to the resurgence of the playground black marketeer.  Children are enterprising little buggers who will profit from censorship.

What's that, you expect the school will do something about this?  ORLY?  Even with an outright ban on mobile phones how can we expect a school to stop the transfer of a 15mm x 11mm x 1mm plastic rectangle?

And if the school does introduce above airport-grade security, there's always the local recreation ground on an evening, or football on Sunday, or...

@JamesFirth

2 comments:

  1. The legalizing of hardcore porn in the UK around 1999/2000 has not been discussed enough I think. The impact of that and the now easy and free supply of such material in every home has repurcussions to British society which are only just being detected. How would Internet life in 2012 be different if ownership and supply of hardcore material was still illegal and had criminal repurcussions?

    ReplyDelete
  2. It wouldn't be different at all. Almost none of the huge numbers of pornographic web sites are based in the UK, so even with draconian antiporn laws, almost all of it would still be available to anyone in Britain who chose to look it up.

    Even if you're advocating Iranian-style internet censorship, it is still trivial to access nearly anything. But you wouldn't be advocating that, now, would you? You wouldn't be daring to tell me what to read, or how to live my life, would you?

    ReplyDelete

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