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Glyn Moody

Glyn Moody's look at all levels of the enterprise open source stack. The blog will look at the organisations that are embracing open source, old and new alike (start-ups welcome), and the communities of users and developers that have formed around them (or not, as the case may be).

What the EU Pornography Ban is Really About

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It began last week, with an article by the Pirate Party MEP Christian Engström, who wrote about a vote that will take place in the European Parliament (possibly tomorrow):

the European Parliament will be voting on a Report on eliminating gender stereotypes in the EU. To promote gender equality and eliminating gender stereotypes are of course very laudable goals, so my guess would be that unless something happens, the report will be approved by the parliament, possibly by a very large majority.

But as always, the devil is in the detail.

Article 17 of the report says (with emphasis added):

17. Calls on the EU and its Member States to take concrete action on its resolution of 16 September 1997 on discrimination against women in advertising, which called for a ban on all forms of pornography in the media and on the advertising of sex tourism;

The resolution of 16 September 1997 in turn said:

5. Calls for statutory measures to prevent any form of pornography in the media and in advertising and for a ban on advertising for pornographic products and sex tourism;

Now, there's clearly a debate to be had on the place of pornography in society, and its limits. What's disturbing is that this report is apparently trying to short-circuit that debate by slipping in a total ban as just one measure among many others that have nothing directly to do with such an action.

And Engström goes on to note, that's not all:

the resolution we will be voting on next week has other things to say about the internet. Article 14 reads (again with my highlighting):

14. Points out that a policy to eliminate stereotypes in the media will of necessity involve action in the digital field; considers that this requires the launching of initiatives coordinated at EU level with a view to developing a genuine culture of equality on the internet; calls on the Commission to draw up in partnership with the parties concerned a charter to which all internet operators will be invited to adhere;

This is quite clearly yet another attempt to get the internet service providers to start policing what citizens do on the internet, not by legislation, but by "self-regulation". This is something we have seen before in a number of different proposals, and which is one of the big threats against information freedom in our society.

He's right: this is one of the biggest problems of things like ACTA and many copyright enforcement approaches that want ISPs to become unofficial guardians of public morals. That isn't their job, and it's shabby of the politicians to try to avoid public debate by using these underhand ways of bringing in new approaches without proper discussion.

But the saga doesn't end there. After Engström's post, the pirate king himself, Rick Falkvinge, wrote about this upcoming vote, urging European to write to their MEPs, and providing a means for doing so. Here's what happened next, as reported once more by Engström:

many citizens have decided to contact members of the European parliament to express their views on this issue.

This is absolutely excellent. Citizens engaging actively in the democratic process is a very positive thing, at least in my opinion. Before noon, some 350 emails had arrived in my office.

But around noon, these mails suddenly stopped arriving. When we started investigating why this happened so suddenly, we soon found out:

The IT department of the European Parliament is blocking the delivery of the emails on this issue, after some members of the parliament complained about getting emails from citizens.

This is an absolute disgrace, in my opinion. A parliament that views input from citizens on a current issue as spam, has very little democratic legitimacy in my opinion.

These are emails from constituents, writing to MEPs, to express their views about a serious issue. But instead of responding to that concern, some MEPs had them blocked.

The key issue here is to do with who MEPs think they are – or, more particularly, who they think pays their £80,000 per year salary. Do they really think they can just ignore what the very people who pay that money think, just because it comes as an email?

And isn't it strange how much more acceptable it seems to be for some MEPs when contact comes personally from a lobbyist trying to get some change to legislation? The idea that this is in any way fair, and that anyone can ask to meet up in this way is, of course, absurd, since lobbyists are paid handsomely to hang around the offices of MEPs, whereas the rest of us have to earn an honest living, and can't just swan off to Brussels on the off-chance we can have a quick chat with the person who nominally represents us.

So what's happening here is not really about pornography, and not even about the broad censorship a ban on it would inevitably entail. It's about how democracy functions in the digital age when most people turn to email to contact their representatives. For the latter simply to redirect unwanted correspondence to the spam folder is not just a disgrace, it is a fundamental assault on the principles of democratic representation. MEPs would do well to think long and hard about this episode, and draw the correct conclusions about their relationship to us, or many people will become even more disillusioned with politics and the European Union than are currently, if that's possible.

In the meantime, you could try writing to your MEP using WriteToThem, but since that is likely to get blocked, there doesn't seem much point wasting your time. Alternatively, you could ring them, but doubtless then the MEPs would complain about their switchboard being jammed by all these tiresome constituents (which is why email is much better for anyone). Perhaps the best thing is to sign this petition about the ban – it won't do much, but thanks to the arrogance of some MEPs, we don't have many other options.

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