Analysis |

Adult Approach Needed: Four Problems With Israel's Plan to Track Online Porn Consumers

Blocking websites places us on the edge of a very slippery slope in which we won’t know what will be censored, and why.

Oded Yaron
Oded Yaron
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Porn
Credit: Dreamstime
Oded Yaron
Oded Yaron

1. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the wild, unrestricted world of pornography enjoyed a gold rush online. “Legitimate” content sites posted critiques of porno films, the industry was widely covered and an increasing number of websites turned the films that once stayed beneath the counter in the video library – or hidden at the bottom of one’s parents’ closet – into an integral part of the new culture. Porn stars also became cultural icons. As the song in the musical comedy “Avenue Q” put it in 2003, “The Internet Is for Porn.”

Therefore, one of the most surprising things about the current uproar surrounding the draft bill to block porn websites in Israel is the wall-to-wall support the legislation is receiving from all corners. It’s not only conservative groups or religious parties, but also considerable parts of the feminist movement that are backing it.

The reasons for this include the well-documented exploitation within the porn industry and its close connection to prostitution; the objectification of women; and the widespread impact of pornographic content on the sexual views of complete generations.

Although feminist opposition to the objectification of women is nothing new, the impression (superficial, I admit) I get from the internet is that the counterreaction to porn seems only to be intensifying – creating a challenge that even those in favor of web freedom have to deal with. It’s much harder to dismiss the furor with the claim that it’s just another conservative reaction.

2. We have to recall that, for all our revulsion at this world, the pornographic content of the aughts derived not only from the San Fernando Valley (the “Hollywood” of the porn industry), for better or worse. Many amateur websites also cropped up alongside the industry; some of them even originated as part of the “revenge porn” phenomenon – where people upload videos and photos of partners without their knowledge or consent (and which has led to criminal prosecutions).

But there are also a large number of websites featuring people for whom it’s an “amateur sport.” It’s impossible to say they weren’t influenced by porn’s entry into the mainstream, but for them that’s part of the fun and a broad (fringe) culture has developed around them. So it’s much more difficult to speak here about wholesale exploitation.

3. When this subject makes headlines, digital rights activists constantly remind us that the main problem is not the actual porn. One of their main fears is that of over-blocking – and the situation in Britain is a perfect example. Britain required internet service providers (ISPs) to censor content as a default option beginning in 2014, and surfers repeatedly discovered that completely legitimate websites were being censored.

Among the first victims were sex education sites – but there were also political and human-rights organization sites. For example, in an incident reported in Scotland before its referendum on independence from Great Britain, a student discovered that his school had blocked a website of the movement favoring independence.

This is an argument that sounds “technical,” supporters of blocking always say, and we simply need better filters. The problem is that they had similar answers over a decade ago and yet the problems remain. Since then, there have been significant improvements in computerization capabilities; the world of artificial intelligence has made great strides in identifying images; and the world of big data has greatly improved our ability to analyze and classify information. But we are repeatedly told how complex the problem is.

It begins with defining where the boundary lies: is it in video footage of Nicki Minaj? In Courbet’s painting “The Origin of the World”? Or, as Facebook recently discovered, in the iconic photograph of a napalmed Vietnamese girl running naked? It continues with the technical difficulty of implementing the blocking, and the fact that nudity and pornography also exist on legitimate websites such as YouTube, Twitter and Reddit. Would you block all these websites?

On the other hand, many people will say the blocking doesn’t really make a difference, because of the ease with which you can download a privacy-protecting browser such as Tor and access all the content you ever – or never – dreamed. Incidentally, it’s a solution used by very few people.

But there’s a more serious problem regarding content, and it concerns the wording of the existing law. According to the draft bill by MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli (Habayit Hayehudi), responsibility for deciding on the content to be blocked will belong with the communications minister (at present, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu). It joins the hasty law that determined that pornographic content is offensive, as well as content that contains racial or ultranationalist incitement.

What does the government see as incitement? As Tirtza Flohr noted in her television critique yesterday, when Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan was invited onto television recently, what perturbed him was a small web game called “Liyla and The Shadows of War” – about a Palestinian girl and her father trying to escape from Israeli soldiers in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge.

Erdan complained that Facebook and Google did not remove the game. “Yet another example of the unbridled incitement running riot on the social networks, [promoted] by the Palestinians and their supporters,” as he put it. His anger is part of the campaign being waged by the government against web giants such as Facebook and Google, which ministers like Erdan and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked accuse of being responsible for incitement to terror – despite the fact that, in the same breath, they boast of a 95-percent cooperation rate from those same firms. And the blocking of content, as Ido Keinan wrote in Haaretz, takes place on the Israeli internet – so that, in the rest of the world, the same incitement continues to be accessible.

In other words, the problem here is not porn. The problem is that a transition to the model of blocking as a default option (the ISPs are obligated, even now, to offer blocking solutions for parents) places us on the edge of a very slippery slope in which we won’t know what will be censored, and why. Control over that will be given to the communications minister. The same minister who, incidentally, is currently waging an all-out battle against Kan, the proposed public broadcasting corporation.

4. An even greater problem is built into the new model: the new “opt out” that the draft law offers. ISPs will be required to create a list of people who opt out and choose to remove the filter. In its present version, the law doesn’t lay down any restrictions in managing this list, the procedures for safeguarding it, or acceptable uses of it.

We don’t know whether the government will demand this information, whether hackers will be able to get their hands on it, whether rogue employees will sell the lists to information profiteers, and we don’t know what will be done with this information. On the most basic level, this is more than just potential embarrassment for religious users who choose to keep their internet open, not necessarily because of porn – but who will remember that afterward?

Click the alert icon to follow topics:

Comments

SUBSCRIBERS JOIN THE CONVERSATION FASTER

Automatic approval of subscriber comments.
From $1 for the first month

Already signed up? LOG IN

ICYMI

Charles Lindbergh addressing an America First Committee rally on October 3, 1941.

Ken Burns’ Brilliant ‘The U.S. and the Holocaust’ Has Only One Problem

The projected rise in sea level on a beach in Haifa over the next 30 years.

Facing Rapid Rise in Sea Levels, Israel Could Lose Large Parts of Its Coastline by 2050

Tal Dilian.

As Israel Reins in Its Cyberarms Industry, an Ex-intel Officer Is Building a New Empire

Queen Elizabeth II, King Charles III and a British synagogue.

How the Queen’s Death Changes British Jewry’s Most Distinctive Prayer

Newly appointed Israeli ambassador to Chile, Gil Artzyeli, poses for a group picture alongside Rabbi Yonatan Szewkis, Chilean deputy Helia Molina and Gerardo Gorodischer, during a religious ceremony in a synagogue in Vina del Mar, Chile last week.

Chile Community Leaders 'Horrified' by Treatment of Israeli Envoy

Queen Elizabeth attends a ceremony at Windsor Castle, in June 2021.

Over 120 Countries, but Never Israel: Queen Elizabeth II's Unofficial Boycott