Iceland’s Plan to Ban Internet Porn Sparks Uproar
In the age of instant information, globe-spanning viral videos and the World Wide Web, can a thoroughly wired country become a porn-free zone? Authorities in Iceland want to find out.
The government of the tiny North Atlantic nation is drafting plans to ban pornography, in print and online, in an attempt to protect children from a tide of violent sexual imagery.
The proposal by Interior Minister Ogmundur Jonasson has caused an uproar. Opponents say the move will censor the Web, encourage authoritarian regimes and undermine Iceland's reputation as a Scandinavian bastion of free speech.
Advocates say it is a sensible measure that will shelter children from serious harm.
"When a 12-year-old types 'porn' into Google, he or she is not going to find photos of naked women out on a country field, but very hardcore and brutal violence," said Halla Gunnarsdottir, political adviser to the interior minister.
"There are laws in our society. Why should they not apply to the Internet?"
Gunnarsdottir says the proposals currently being drawn up by a committee of experts will not introduce new restrictions, but simply uphold an existing if vaguely worded law.
Pornography is already banned in Iceland, and has been for decades - but the term is not defined, so the law is not enforced. Magazines such as Playboy and Penthouse are on sale in book stores, and more hardcore material can be bought from a handful of sex shops. "Adult" channels form part of digital TV packages.
Iceland's left-of-center government insists it is not setting out to sweep away racy magazines or censor sex. The ban would define pornography as material with violent or degrading content.
Gunnarsdottir said the committee is still exploring the details of how a porn ban could be enforced. One possibility would be to make it illegal to pay for porn with Icelandic credit cards. Another, more controversial, route would be a national Internet filter or a list of website addresses to be blocked.
That idea has Internet-freedom advocates alarmed.
"This kind of thing does not work. It is technically impossible to do in a way that has the intended effect," said Smari McCarthy of free-speech group the International Modern Media Institute. "And it has negative side effects - everything from slowing down the Internet to blocking content that is not meant to be blocked to just generally opening up a whole can of worms regarding human rights issues, access to information and freedom of expression."
Despite its often chaotic appearance, the Internet is not a wholly lawless place. It is regulated, to varying degrees, around the world. Police monitor the net for child pornography and other illegal material, and service providers in many countries block offending sites.
Some governments also censor the Internet at a national level - though the likes of authoritarian Iran, North Korea and China are not countries liberal Iceland wants to emulate.
European countries including Britain, Sweden and Denmark ask Internet service providers to block child pornography websites, measures that have met with only limited opposition.
But broader filtering has mostly been resisted. A few years ago, Australia announced it would introduce an Internet filtering system to block websites containing material including child pornography, bestiality, sexual violence and terrorist content. After an outcry, the government abandoned the plan last year.
Critics say such filters are flawed and often scoop up innocent sites in their net - as when Denmark’s child pornography filter briefly blocked access to Google and Facebook last year because of a glitch.
On the streets of Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik, there was some support for a porn ban, but also skepticism about how it would work.
"I think this is a good idea, but I think it might be problematic to implement this," said shop assistant Ragnheidur Arnarsdottir. "It is difficult to fight technology."
Iceland’s moves are being closely watched. It may be a tiny country of only 320,000 people, but its economic and social experiments - like its active volcanos - often have international impact.
For centuries economically dependent on fishing, Iceland transformed itself in the early 21st century into a pioneer of aggressive credit-driven banking. Then in 2008, the country’s debt-burdened banks all collapsed, making Iceland the first and most dramatic casualty of the global financial crisis, and leaving a string of failed businesses around the world.
The economy is now bouncing back, aided by Iceland’s status as one of the world’s best connected countries, with one of the highest levels of Internet use on the planet. Recent initiatives to boost growth include plans to make Iceland a global center of media and technology freedom - a status that advocates like McCarthy fear could be threatened by an online porn ban.
Anti-porn activists, however, are hailing Iceland as a pioneer. It is certainly not afraid to go its own way. Although the country has largely liberal Scandinavian values, it broke with most of Europe in 2010 by banning strip clubs.
"This is a country with courage," said Gail Dines, a professor of sociology and women’s studies at Wheelock College in Boston and author of the book "Pornland."
"Iceland is going to be the first country with the guts to stand up to these predatory bullies from L.A. (in the porn industry)," she said. "It is going to take one country to show that this is possible."
But opponents say the project is both misguided and doomed.
"I can say with absolute certainty that this will not happen, this state filter," said Icelandic parliamentarian Birgitta Jonsdottir, a prominent advocate of online freedom.
She is confident those drafting the anti-porn measures will see the error of their ways. They may also run out of time - Iceland is due to hold parliamentary elections in April, and the unpopular coalition government could be thrown out.
Jonsdottir said the key to protecting children and others from hardcore harm is for citizens to better inform themselves about the Internet and how it works.
"People just have to make themselves a bit more knowledgeable about what their kids are up to, and face reality," she said.
Gunnarsdottir, the political adviser backing the ban, just hopes the emotional debate around the issue will cool down.
"I think we should be able to discuss the Internet with more depth, without just shouting censorship on the one hand and laissez-faire on the other hand," she said.
"Is it freedom of speech to be able to reach children with very hardcore, brutal material? Is that the freedom of speech we want to protect?"