How not to write an article about Internet censorship: a case-study

Update: I’ve turned off comments on this post because we have a collective agreement that discussion on this site happens within a feminist framework, but this particular article is likely to be of interest to people who don’t fit within this. I warmly encourage readers to discuss this in other online spaces.

I care a lot about online freedoms, but the one thing that stops me from doing more campaigning on this topic, is the other campaigners. I’m going to pick one train-wreck of an article in particular, The Guardian: Porn panic! as an example, but I see stuff like this all too often. So without further ado, here’s how not to write an article about Internet censorship, in 4 easy steps:

1. Make it all about porn

A lot is going on in the world. Revolutions in the middle-East, nearly world-wide recession, the Euro crisis, austerity, an ever-increasing gap between rich and poor. If you want to get people to care about your issue, you’re going to have to show that it really matters. If, on the other hand, you want to give the impression that your issue is only relevant to people who watch porn online and don’t have any real problems, then present yourself as being, not pro-freedom of expression, but pro-porn.

Case in point: The first four – count them, four – paragraphs of this article are about breasts. Not about Internet filtering, not about censorship, just breasts. In general. The author would like us to know about the many, many, breasts he has seen in his lifetime, and how it didn’t do him any harm. It’s hard to understand what the point is, except that maybe the author thought this was funny? It isn’t.

The issue is not porn, it’s censorship. It’s about handing the government (and every future government) an off-switch for any part of the Internet they happen to dislike, along with many innocuous websites that would just get filtered out by accident, as happened to Conciliation Resources, a website devoted to resources for ending conflict. The government desperately wants us to think this is about porn, because they can win an anti-porn campaign, but they can’t win a pro-censorship campaign. Putting the focus on porn plays right into the would-be-censors’ hands.

2. Say that people who object to porn do so because they are prudes who are afraid of sex

Conveniently ignore the fact that 99.9% of porn portrays disrespectful, if not outright hateful, attitudes toward women. Treat anyone who dislikes porn as a silly old prude.

Since then their popularity has exploded, and now breasts – or ‘boobs’ as our drug-addled youth have taken to calling them – inhabit almost every corner of the interwebs. But breasts are dangerous: they can lead to suffocation or blindness. Are there too many breasts on the internet, and what disturbing effects can breasts have on young children?

For extra points: mock and belittle parents who want to block their kids’ access to porn.

Fear over online pornography is leading anti-porn campaigners into irrational, knee-jerk responses. Are we hurtling toward a future where the only thing left to masturbate to is the Daily Mail?

Each tragic case of boob trauma follows the same remarkable pattern. An ordinary little boy approaching his teenage years suddenly starts to change his behaviour: becoming withdrawn and moody and mysteriously growing about six inches in height. Detailed investigation of the child’s browser history reveals that the cause is not the rough patch the parents have been going through, a recent change of schools, or puberty; but an addiction to online porn.

3. Give too much information about the wrong things

List 24 different fetishes that are catered for on the Internet, describe how important taking part in online fetish role-play is to you, and suggest that porn might “help kids realise that their urges are natural and healthy”.

Some people might agree with these ideas, while others (*cough*) might find them creepy as fuck, but in either case these ideas are nothing to do with Internet censorship. By talking about this stuff the author is shooting himself in the foot, because no-one cares. There are a lot of people would be horrified by the idea of handing the government an off-switch to the Internet, but who didn’t need or want to know that the author has always found vanilla sex boring, or that he needs a continuous stream of pornographic images to masturbate to, or that amateur zit-squeezing fetish porn is a thing.

4. Don’t explain the important issue that your article is actually about

The topic at hand – web censorship – isn’t even introduced until paragraph 5. That’s after 4 paragraphs about breasts. Once the author is satisfied that the reader truly understands how much he really, really likes breasts, he goes on to criticise a Daily Mail campaign against online porn. The criticism is fair enough, but pointing out that a Daily Mail campaign is hypocritical and scare-mongering is a bit like pointing out that snow is cold and white.

Around paragraph 9 or 10 he finally gets around to mentioning, in a roundabout sort of way, that the government is talking about blocking porn from the Internet at the level of the Internet Service Provider. That’s kind of an important point. In fact it’s the most important point in the whole article, and it’s something a lot of people don’t know about. Yet it only gets a brief mention toward the bottom. By contrast, most people were probably already aware that heterosexual men sometimes like to look at breasts, so it’s hard to understand why 4 or 5 paragraphs were devoted to this.

Except I lied, it isn’t hard to understand, it’s actually quite easy to guess why the author chose to combine a small amount of relevant information with a large amount of talking about breasts. The author is a heterosexual man who is interested in technology, already knows the issues around Internet censorship, and despite being an adult still giggles when he hears the word “boobies”. He wrote an article that would appeal to people exactly like himself. I bet his 2 or 3 closest friends and the guys on his favourite IRC channel loved it.

For all the digital rights activists who don’t understand why so few people outside their own tech-loving networks show any interest in online censorship and privacy issues: this is why.