Porn Filtering: A Trojan Horse for the Copyright Tax?

Over the weekend an incoming link to the Ministry led me to a very interesting comment on the Daily Mail’s campaign for ‘opt-in’ porn filtering by the British porn producer/actor Jim Slip…

Personally, I have no problem with “Opt in”, because its just rids us of millions of freebie hunters, 14 year old boys and general bandwidth wasters. However my question to the panel is this: Doesn’t it seem a bit coincindental that this hysterical anti-porn campaign has been re-resurrected so soon after our Mr Bendover won the right to demand names and addresses of people who own routers that had been used by persons unknown to download/upload porn?

I have always been of the opinion that it is wise to stay under the radar in the UK and maybe this well publicised case has now just stoked a huge hornet’s nest of anti-porn hysteria and in effect will destroy anyone’s hopes of starting out as a porn producer in the UK.

“Opt in” doesn’t effect successful, established websites like jimslip.com, but it will effect fledgling new websites that are already struggling to stay afloat or simply starting out.

I suspect that we can safely ignore the comments about rival porn producer/actor Ben Dover here as we already know for a fact that the current anti-porn campaign is being driven by the Christian right but nevertheless Jim’s comments provide a timely reminder that in the digital age the commercial porn industry is facing similar issues to those facing the film, television and music industries.

The fact of the matter is that in terms of traffic, the biggest porn sites on the internet aren’t operated by one of the traditional adult movie studies, i.e. Vivid, Private Media Group, etc., nor even by one of the old media porn companies such as Playboy, Penthouse or Hustler. In 2012, the major players in online porn are the Tube and Cam sites which offer large amounts of free content and user generated and this is changing the dynamics of the industry, as illustrated by this article, which appeared in the Los Angeles Times in August 2009.

On a recent Saturday night, Savannah Stern earned $300 to hang out for seven hours at a party in Santa Monica wearing nothing but a feather boa.

The veteran of more than 350 hard-core pornography productions took the job to earn extra cash and to network. But the word at the 35th anniversary party for Hustler magazine was not heartening, especially among the roughly 75 other women working there.

“At least five girls I haven’t seen in a while came up to me and said, ‘Savannah, are you working?’ ” said Stern, who started in the industry four years ago and, like most adult performers, uses a stage name. “I had to say, ‘No, not really,’ and they all said, ‘Yeah, I’m not either.’ “

The article goes on to note that Stern has seen both the going rate for male-female scenes drop by 30%, from $1,000 per scene to $700 aper scene with opportunities to work are becoming few and far between. From working 4 to 5 days a week back in 2007, by 2010 she was getting only one day’s work a week and her annual income had fallen from around $150,000 a year to just $60,000 a year. Across the industry as a whole, most of the main production companies were reporting falls in revenues of between 30% and 50% and even the big name porn actresses have been forced to branch out into doing live show at strip clubs and product endorsement for the sex toy industry in order to maintain their incomes.

Even without considering the extent to which tube sites trade in pirated material the ‘Hollywood’ end of the industry is facing up to some harsh economic lessons.

The production costs on even a fairly standard 20-30 minute male-female scene will easily run to several thousand dollars once to factor in all the overheads, i.e. film crew, director, venue, make-up, costume, etc. By comparison, webcam sites tend to draw most of their performers from Eastern Europe and Asia and offer pay rates of between $8 and $15 an hour with no other benefits; rates that are too low to attract professional American performers, leaving the field open to teenage amateurs and college students who’ve turned to porn to cover the costs of tuition and other expenses.

Against that background one really shouldn’t be too surprised to find that a fairly well known porn producer/actor seems pretty sanguine at the prospect of the state/ISPs forcing people to ‘opt-in’ to having the ability to access porn over the internet. As ‘Jim’ correctly indicates, its a measure that would impact most on the casual porn consumer who is highly unlikely to be interested in paying for access to Jim’s videos when there so much material out there that can currently be accessed free of change, and the fact that he is seemingly so relaxed about this kind of filtering is also a key reason why the rest of us should be concerned at the possibility that the current government might take such proposals seriously.

Thus far, most of the online debate surrounding this issue has been dominated by three general themes.

One is, of course, the general view that job of ‘policing’ what young people get up to online should be down to their parents and not ISPs or the state.

The second focusses largely on technical issues and the fact that, historically, systems that have been used to try and restrict access to online content, including everything from ‘net nannies’ to the DRM systems used to try and prevent piracy, have proven to be ineffective and easily bypassed.

Finally, concerns have been voiced about the risks of function creep and questions raised about accountability – who decides which sites/content will be blocked by these filters and what is there to prevent these systems being abused in order to pursue other agendas. The relatively short history of net nanny systems is littered with problems which range from the farcical (the ‘walled garden’ system used in UK schools that refused to admit the existence of the town of Scunthorpe) to the downright sinister and unpleasant. Earlier this year a Federal Judge had to order a central Missouri school district to stop using internet filters to block access to a number of gay, lesbian and transgender issue-related websites and both the First Amendment Center and Electronic Frontier Foundation have fairly extensive archives of material which cover the global use and abuse of internet filters.

There is, however, a much bigger issue here that has yet to be explored…

A group representing British songwriters and composers will on Wednesday call for the introduction of a levy on broadband providers based on the amount of pirated music they allow to pass through their networks.

Will Page, chief economist at PRS for Music, will argue at a Westminster conference that a piracy fee would better align the financial interests of internet service providers (ISPs) with rights holders at a time when the two industries are at odds over who should bear the costs of online song swapping. – Financial Times, 13 July 2010

in 2007, the Songwriters Association of Canada gained some international headlines with a proposal to legalize non-commercial peer-to-peer file sharing through an ISP levy. This sort of proposal wasn’t new, but had not been so prominently put forth by an artist organization before. There were serious problems with the proposal, but it stimulated a healthy debate and it started from many correct premises — that file sharing should be embraced, that digital locks and lawsuits were not a way forward, etc. But it was a non-voluntary, “you’re a criminal” tax that could open the floodgates for other industries to demand similar levies. – TechDirt, 6 February 2012

Unlike a number of other countries, including the US, Canada, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, etc., the UK has always resisted creative industry demands for the introduction of a ‘private copying levy‘ on the grounds that such a levy would unfairly penalise people who don’t engaging in such copying, and the same principle that applied when calls were made for a ‘tax’ on blank audio and video cassettes, recordable CDs and DVDs and, most recently, on digital media players also applies to call for a ‘piracy levy’ on broadband access…

…just so long as the internet remains an open access medium.

However, once you start down the road of introducing ‘opt-in’ network level content filtering then you open the door to industry demands for both a greater range of ‘opt-in’ filtering and for demands for copyright levies to be applied to the cost of broadband services where users choose to have the ability to access particular types of media content. Today it’s porn, tomorrow it could easily be BitTorrent, or live video streaming or even the news media – once you have opt-in network level content filtering systems in place, its a relatively trivial matter for ISP to begin charging users a subscription fee for each service they opt in to and, from there, for additional levies to applied to those subscriptions as the creative industries will inevitably argue that the fairness argument that has been used to resist calls for such levies in the past will no longer apply when users can opt out of paying their copyright taxes by choosing not to opt in to these services.

This is the real danger that lies lurking behind proposals for opt-in network level porn filtering. It’s not that these systems could be misused by the state to restrict free expression – the UK isn’t China – but rather that these proposal could easily serve a Trojan Horse that paves the way for the introduction of ‘copyright taxes’ on broadband services.

As such, one can hardly be surprised to see old media news organisations, like News International and Associated Newspapers, lining up to support Clare Perry’s anti-porn campaign.

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  • On the subject of a ‘flat-rate levy’ – I think that whilst songwriters and other performers see the benefit of this type of scheme, there has always been a massive pushback from the labels. See these comments from NZ after the IoM tried such an approach http://www.nzherald.co.nz/technology/news/article.cfm?c_id=5&objectid=10585949 

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  • A superb analysis of the current situation. About 10′ over the head of the average Hon. Member, though, hence the Digital Economy Act.