Memorandum submitted by Oliver Thornton
1. The webpage describing the inquiry lists
the areas of interest as being:
user generated content, including
content that glorifies guns and gang violence;
availability of personal information
on social networking sites;
content that incites racial
hatred, extremism or terrorism, and
content that exhibits extreme
pornography or violence.
2. It also says that the area of interest
is the impact of content on "consumers in general" as
opposed to only concentrating on young people.
3. It also considers the various ways of
controlling access to internet content, either legislative or
4. That there are some types of content
that it is inappropriate for young or vulnerable people to view
should be a generally-accepted axiom. While there may be differing
opinions on which content exactly should be restricted, and to
which age groups, there are very few who would argue seriously
that young or vulnerable people should be exposed to all the types
of content that exist. The Byron Review has already dealt with
5. That leaves the question of what effect,
if any, content on the internet is deemed to have on capable adults.
6. It is my view that adults of sound mind
are capable of deciding for themselves what content they wish
to view, or otherwise, and that there are sufficient controls
available in the form of filtering software, to enable them to
avoid objectionable content if they so wish. The "Safesearch"
feature on the search engine "Google" is an example.
I choose to switch off the safesearch feature, but fully understand
why others might choose to leave it switched on at various levels.
7. To date there has been no compelling
evidence presented of any harm done to adults by various types
of content. While the current Criminal Justice and Immigration
Bill's clauses dealing with extreme pornography have been backed
up by a "Rapid Evidence Assessment" commissioned by
the Ministry of Justice, this REA has been refuted by several
leading academics in the field.
8. Furthermore, information glorifying guns,
gang violence, racial hatred etc have always been available, and
it can be demonstrated that several recent Hollywood blockbusters
could be ascribed to each of these categories in one way or another.
The BBFC classification system restricts films and videos showing
"imitable techniques" to those aged 18 or over, but
otherwise does not deem that any harm comes from them.
9. It is my view, in accordance with the
BBFC guidelines, that capable adults are not sheep to be led by
whatever imagery or arguments are put in front of them, but that
they are able and willing to use their own assessments of those
arguments to determine right and wrong. The availability of arguments
in favour of terrorism, racial hatred, or extremism, do not increase
the risk of these things unless the person reading them is already
inclined from some other reason to follow those arguments. Most
people are able to dismiss the arguments as irrational and unworthy
of attention. The same argument applies for content glorifying
gang violence and weapons.
10. Similarly, I believe that capable adults
should be allowed to use their own judgement and informed consent
when posting personal information to social networking sites.
While it is true that there are grave risks involved in posting
such information, and sometimes websites do not adequately highlight
these risks, once a person is aware of them, it is his or her
free choice to take whatever risks he or she chooses. We do not
seek to ban or control the existence of mountains just because
sometimes mountaineers suffer injury or death as a result of climbing
them; we accept that the mountaineers make an informed decision
to take those risks.
11. "Cyber bullying" is a separate
matter, since this is not involved with the dissemination of ideas
but rather refers to a deliberate campaign by a person or group
of people to harass and cause psychological harm to another human
being via the internet. I have seen some of this hateful behaviour
in attempts to silence people whose opinions are unpopular with
a particular group, and I consider this to be as serious a problem
as psychological bullying in real life.
12. Based on the reasoning in para 6-10,
it is my belief that the existing regulatory regime is in fact
excessive in attempting to control internet and video game content.
Inasmuch as the BBFC system of classifying films and video games
already handles issues concerning what content is appropriate
for different age groups, it is my view that adults should be
able to access whatever content they are comfortable with accessing,
and simply need to be given sufficient information as to be able
to make informed choices about what content they view, so that
they can filter out that which is objectionable to them personally.
13. The internet has been a huge leap forward
in the right to freedom of expression, at last liberating us from
the need for publishing companies for individuals' views to be
heard by a wide range of different people. It is to be expected
that there will be some people whose views most people find objectionable,
such as those of racists and extremists.
14. However, to use this as a means to restrict
the way the internet works is to say that freedom of speech is
not as important as avoiding upset.
15. As I explained in para 9, adults are
capable of making their own minds up about which arguments are
worthwhile and which are not; the best way to counter terrorist
rhetoric, extremism and racism, is not to seek to ban their content
but to make counter-arguments available via the same media so
that people can make a free choice between them.
16. With respect to extreme pornography,
the current Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill seeks to make
illegal simple possession of certain categories of material that
(as explained in para 7) some believe to be harmful, but which
has not been proved to be harmful. The strongest statement of
harm made in the REA is that "those already predisposed towards
sexual violence may be adversely affected". However, if a
person is predisposed towards a certain type of activity, removing
one possible form of trigger is never going to provide any protection.
17. Furthermore, those who are interested
in extreme pornography are much more likely to be law-abiding
individuals and no different to other citizens except in their
choice of safe, sane and consensual sexual activities. Such people
are fully aware of the difference between reality and fantasy,
and so there can be no harm caused to them by viewing such material.
18. Consequently, there is no real need
to control access to this material. Attempts to do so (such as
in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill) are driven not by
any evidence of harm but by a desire by one group to impose their
attitudes towards the material on those who do not share those
19. A similar argument to that in para 16
applies to guns and gang violence. While content, and in particular,
user-generated content, may exist that attempts to glorify these
things, the only people who will find them glorious will be those
who already find them glorious. Those who do not will find such
material objectionable and will not be affected by it. Those who
do find it glorious are not affected either, because they keep
their original viewpoint.
20. Until someone who finds guns and/or
gang violence to be glorious, actually goes out and takes part
in gang violence or gun crime, he or she has committed no crime;
if he or she commits no crime, then seeking to control the material
is simply to introduce a form of "thought crime" and
is an attempt to police, not a person's deeds, but their feelings.
21. There is, however, a strong case to
be made for banning the dissemination of content that depicts
actual crimes in progress in order to encourage others to commit
crimes. This would include "happy slapping" videos etc.
However, since there are already laws that cover this type of
act (to video a crime in progress one would surely be an accessory
to the crime), there only needs to be a shift in emphasis for
police to seek more actively to address this type of problem.