A report that will be voted on in the European Union parliament March 12 could lay the groundwork for laws banning pornography across all media — including the Internet — and could potentially restrict civil liberties, free speech advocates claim.
The broader aim of the sweeping proposal, which was introduced by left-leaning parliamentarian Kartika Liotard of the Netherlands, is to foster gender equality in the EU by combating gender stereotypes on many fronts. To that end, the opinion recommends a "ban all forms of pornography in the media," including what it calls "the digital field."
It also calls for the establishment of regulatory agencies with "a mandate to impose effective sanctions on companies and individuals promoting the sexualization of girls."
Although the vote on the report is not legally binding, if passed, the proposal could end up influencing EU law. According to Wired UK, the chances of an EU-wide pornography ban are slim, but free speech critics are nonetheless concerned about the report's vague language.
"The devil is in the detail," Christian Engstrom, EU parliamentarian from Sweden's Pirate Party, wrote in his blog. "Although I completely agree that eliminating outdated gender stereotypes in the EU is a worthwhile goal, I will be voting against this resolution next week."
Engstrom argues that the use of "media" was not sufficiently defined in the proposal, nor in the 1997 resolution that its anti-pornography language is based on. He said that, as it is written, the "media" could potentially include the Web, social networks, emails and photos uploaded by citizens of the EU's 27 member states.
But that isn't the only complication. According to CNET, if eventually worked into law, the opinion could also pave the way for Internet service providers to police their customers:
The wording suggests that while Internet service providers may not be forced to comply with the principles of the report, it could give these companies 'policing rights' over their customers, similar to the 'six-strike' rule in the U.S. relating to online piracy.
In February, an Icelandic politician's proposed ban on Internet pornography was roundly criticized by free speech advocates.
Iceland Interior Minister Ogmundur Jonasson, who is drafting the legislation, maintained that the the larger social problems he claims porn causes outweigh concerns about free speech. Printed pornography and strip clubs are already banned in Iceland.
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Last week, an international group of free speech campaigners, activists and academics issued an open letter to Ogmundur condemning the proposed online pornography ban.
"Iceland is a liberal democratic state which should not serve as a role model for Internet censorship," the letter read, warning that blocking pornographic content online "may create demand for an underground porn industry, unregulated and most certainly affiliated with other illegal activities."