Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Written Evidence

Memorandum submitted by Oliver Thornton

  1.  The webpage describing the inquiry lists the areas of interest as being:

    —    "cyber bullying";

    —    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 voluntary.


  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 these issues.

  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 attitudes.

  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.

January 2008

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