Our response to the UN ban on cartoon art and fiction

As we reported last month, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child is circulating a frightening censorship proposal. In a slap in the face to real survivors of child sexual abuse, the proposal would sweep a broad range of art, fiction, and even ornaments under the classification of "child pornography."

So it's hardly surprising that this proposal has drawn widespread disbelief and anger, reflected in the more than 16,000 signatures that our petition to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has already gathered (if you have already signed it, thank you!).

It's not just a sex-negative proposal, it's also a thoroughly stupid one. Censoring more and more content that a pedophile could possibly find sexually arousing is a quixotic endeavor that will never end. Such an exercise is essentially an attempt to criminalize pedophilia by proxy—but since most creators and fans of this content are not pedophiles and will never abuse a child, it's an awfully inaccurate proxy.

Criminalizing the possession of art and fiction also makes no sense from a child protection perspective. A would-be child abuser who uses art or fiction as a safe, victimless outlet for their feelings has a reason not to offend. As soon as that art and fiction becomes criminal, at least some may decide that they no longer have any reason not to offend. Thus rather than saving children from abuse, the censorship of fantasy representations of non-existent children could put more real children in harm's way.

Banning art and fiction is a step too far. But the United Nations proposal doesn't even stop there. We haven't talked about this specifically before now, but it also contains a ban on "any insertion on an online or offline medium… promoting the sexual exploitation of children in any way." This is meant to amount to a ban on the advertising of child abuse websites—which we agree with. But the wording of the ban is far too broad. In our draft five page response to the United Nations (which we will be publishing in full soon), we explain why:

There is a grave risk that such a broad ban could chill legitimate discussions around issues such the age of consent; for example the introduction of “Romeo and Juliet” exceptions to prevent teens from being criminalized for relationships with similar-age peers. Such a ban could also affect legitimate academic research on the effects of child sexual abuse. For example, one infamous meta-analysis provoked a motion of censure from the United States Congress over its finding that the negative impacts of child sexual abuse had been overstated. Such research should be open to robust discussion and criticism. Banning speech that can be characterized as “promoting the sexual exploitation of children” risks chilling such criticism.

The United Nations proposal is bad for artists, it's bad for fans, it's bad for researchers, and it's bad for children. That's why we're not going to accept it. If you haven't yet signed our petition to the United Nations, we invite you to do that right now... and to post our campaign to all your social media accounts. Let's defeat this dangerous proposal before it can go any further.

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Big Brother is watching your porn habits

Prostasia Foundation's priority is to work on the prevention of child sexual abuse, but there are other child protection organizations that seem to prefer to play the blame game. This is nowhere more evident than in the United Kingdom, where moral panic over child sexual abuse makes for an uncomfortably symbiotic relationship between the government, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), and the news media.

Whenever child sexual abuse is in the news, the NSPCC blames Internet companies (claiming that they have failed in their responsibility to keep children safe), and/or pornography (claiming, with no evidence, that it is the primary cause of child sexual abuse), and proselytizes the idea of stronger government regulation of both industries.

The compliant British press echoes and amplifies these misleading claims, while also regularly using dehumanizing language about the perpetrators of child sexual abuse—even those who were themselves children when they offended. By making child abusers seem like an inhuman, external enemy, and painting Internet companies and pornography as the forces that empower them, the British public quickly falls in line behind the proposals for tough new laws, never thinking that their impact will actually be on their own communities and families.

This is the successful template that lies behind not one, but two current initiatives of the United Kingdom government. The first of these is the blocking of all online pornography under the Digital Economy Act 2017, which Professor Andy Phippen wrote about for us in January. This privacy-infringing law, which takes effect from April 1, will require users to verify their age using a mobile phone, credit card, passport or, drivers license. Websites that fail to comply face being blocked throughout the United Kingdom. The law will, however, have no effect on childrens' access to pornography, as they will still be able to access it using social media websites such as Twitter, and using apps such as WhatsApp—which has fewer safeguards against sharing of illegal material.

The second United Kingdom initiative to combat child sexual abuse through censorship is a new legal duty of care on social networks to censor "harmful" content, even if that content is not actually illegal. This new duty of care is expected to be recommended as part of the government’s Online Harms White Paper, which will be released later this month. A preview of its recommendations has already arrived in a report of a House of Lords committee that was released last week, with the message "It's time to rein in big tech."

Despite the media-friendly headline (who supports big tech nowadays?), human rights experts have expressed concern at the implications of the Lords' recommendations. A particular sticking point is the concept that the "precautionary principle" should be a guiding principle for the moderation of "harmful" Internet content. Better known in the context of consumer protection and environmental regulation, the precautionary principle essentially says, "If in doubt about whether something might be harmful or not, regulate it first until are sure."

This principle works well when it comes to the labelling of frozen peas or the regulation of factory emissions. It's not so appropriate when it comes to the regulation of speech. In fact, it's downright illegal. Under international law, states are required to uphold their citizens' right to freedom of expression, subject only to narrow exceptions such as child pornography which they are expected to both criminalize and censor. An ill-defined requirement to censor "harmful" content would be a much broader derogation from freedom of expression, and there is no precedent for it in international law.

Ironically the result of imposing an inflexible "duty of care" on Internet companies to censor harmful content won't be that they will take more care about what they censor, but less. The risk of crippling liability will simply force them to censor a broad range of sexual speech as a "precaution"—but not a carefully-considered precaution about the harm that such speech may cause to children. Rather, it will be a precaution against a NSPCC-orchestrated media panic that targets Internet platforms as the most convenient scapegoat in its ongoing child sexual abuse blame game.

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