Daily Archives: 28 May 2008

Child porn, cartoons and unintended consequences

Everyone hates child porn, right? So, superficially, who could possibly object to government proposals to “help close a loophole that we believe paedophiles are using”?

The problem is twofold however. Firstly, what the government is planning to do is “create a new offence for the possession of non-photographic visual depictions of child sexual abuse.” From reading the consultation paper, this would appear to exclude the written word and apparently this will exclude any “items of genuine historical interest” – so that’s Romeo and Juliet and the Gospels saved then. But everything else is for the pot. Last time I looked that would include a lot of anime and manga.

Secondly, the Ministry of Justice’s “justification” for this is as follows:

We are unaware of any specific research into whether there is a link between accessing these fantasy images of child sexual abuse and the commission of offences against children, but it is felt by police and children’s welfare organisations that the possession and circulation of these images serves to legitimize and reinforce highly inappropriate views about children.

In other words, they have no grounds for doing this whatsoever and don’t even know whether it would be counter-productive (i.e. are paedophiles using visual representation of child abuse as a substitute for the real thing), but they are going to do it anyway.

This has bad law written all over it. This is an explicit attempt to legislate against thoughtcrime and “yuk”.

I mentioned manga above. Comics have regularly fallen foul existing obscene publications legislation and while such attempts often fail if contested the lack of money sloshing about in the industry (as opposed to, say, cinema) means that there is a tendency to play safe. All it would take is an over-zealous police chief to launch a couple of dawn raids on his local Borders with the active support of the Daily Mail and the whole industry would go into a tailspin. We’ve been here before.

The consultation paper also includes this section which, again superficially, sounds quite scary:

Technological advances mean that current software can allow a user to photograph an image (or download one onto a computer) and manipulate it to look like a drawing, a tracing, a painting or cartoon. It is possible to manipulate a real photograph (or video recording) of real child abuse into a cartoon or drawing format, be it still or animated. In that scenario the image/s would appear to be merely a fantasy cartoon or drawing, etc, but would in fact be a distinct record of an actual abusive and illegal act. Yet under current legislation, while possession of the original images of child sexual abuse would be illegal, it would not be illegal to make and possess these cartoon or “fantasy style” images, and they would not be subject to forfeiture by the police.

It may, in some circumstances, be possible for the police to re-engineer the resultant “fantasy style” image to discover the original indecent photograph. In this case a prosecution under POCA 1978 could follow. However, if the process was unavailable and the original indecent
photograph, or convertible data, remained undiscovered, i.e. if the “fantasy style” image had been forwarded on or simply printed as a hard copy, then it would not be possible to prosecute. In addition, the images would not be subject to forfeiture and would remain in circulation.

Note that this is carefully worded to NOT suggest that this has ever actually been done or even that police have come across material where this may have been done. And why would anyone do it? The purpose of filming pornographic images is to give the viewer a sense of reality. Making it look unreal to such an extent that it would be literally impossible to tell if it was real or a drawing would defeat the whole point of the enterprise. And if technology really did advance to such a stage (we’re talking about ever paedo having the skill and resources of Industrial Light and Magic at the click of a mouse key), why would anyone go to the risk of filming an actual act of child abuse when they could simply replicate it artificially.

The bottom line is we can’t legislate for every single hypothetical science fiction scenario. On the other hand, if we do legislate, we should perhaps consider what is going on, right now. Yet I can’t find anywhere in this consultation paper any reference to “second life”, “avatar”, “role play”, “virtual reality” or “MMORPG” despite the fairly obvious implications. Is every avatar in a school uniform going to be banned?

I want to hear a compelling argument backed by strong evidence, not rumour and speculation, before I will consider a law to be necessary. In lieu of I hope the Lib Dems in Parliament will give these proposals short shrift.