Small, volcanic, with a proud Viking heritage and run by an openly gay prime minister, Iceland is now considering becoming the first democracy in the Western world to try to ban online pornography.
A nationwide consultation has found wide support for the move from police and lawyers working in the field of sexual violence, along with health and education professionals, according to Halla Gunnarsdottir, adviser to Icelandic Minister of the Interior Ogmundur Jonasson. Ministers are now looking at the results.
“We are a progressive, liberal society when it comes to nudity, to sexual relations, so our approach is not anti-sex, but anti-violence. This is about children and gender equality, not about limiting free speech,” she said. “Research shows that the average age of children who see online porn is 11 in Iceland and we are concerned about that and about the increasing violent nature of what they are exposed to. This is concern coming to us from professionals, since mainstream porn has become very brutal.”
“A strong consensus has been building with people agreeing that something has to be done. The Internet is a part of our society, not separate from it, and should be treated as such. No one is talking about closing down exchange of information. We have a thriving democracy here in our small country and what is under discussion is the welfare of our children, and their rights to grow and develop in a non-violent environment,” Gunnarsdottir said.
“There are some who say it can’t be done technically — but we want to explore all possibilities and take a political decision on what can be done and how,” she said.
Gender equality is highly valued in Iceland and by Icelandic Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir. In the Global Gender Gap Report 2012, Iceland holds the top spot, closely followed by Finland, Norway and Sweden.
An online ban would complement Iceland’s existing law against printing and distributing porn, and follow on from 2010 legislation which closed strip clubs and 2009 prostitution laws that criminalized the customer rather than the sex worker.
Web filters, blocked addresses and making it a crime to use Icelandic credit cards to access pay-per-view pornography, are among the plans being devised by Internet and legal experts.
“This initiative is about narrowing the definition of porn so it does not include all sexually explicit material, but rather material that can be described as portraying sexual activity in a violent or hateful way,” said Hildur Fjola Antonsdottir, a gender specialist at Iceland University.
“The issue of censorship is indeed a concern and it is important to tread carefully when it comes to possible ways of restricting such material. For example, we have a new political party, the Pirate Party, which is very concerned about all forms of restrictions on the Internet. It is very important not to rush into anything, but rather have constructive dialogues and try to find the best solutions. I see the initiative of the interior ministry on this issue as a part of that process. Otherwise we leave it to the ever hardening porn industry to define our sexuality and why would we want to do that?” she said.
Not all the experts agree with the idea that porn is bad. Studies are often small and it is now impossible to find large numbers of young males who have never watched porn. However, one 2009 study conducted by Montreal University found that porn did not change men’s perception of women.
However, another, by Tim Jones, a psychologist at Worcester University, concluded: “The Internet is fueling more extreme fantasies and the danger is that they could be played out in real life.”
There is evidence of a massive rise in Internet porn addictions and in the type of porn available becoming more hardcore. Women are reporting more relationship problems caused by their partners’ porn habits and the amount of child porn is escalating.
Iceland’s move has been welcomed by Gail Dines, a professor of sociology at Wheelock College in Boston and the author of Pornland: How Porn has Hijacked Our Sexuality.
“Of course Internet porn is damaging,” she said. “We have years of empirical evidence. It’s like global warming, you will always find some global warming deniers out there who can quote some little piece of research they have found somewhere, some science junk, but the consensus is there.”
“We are not saying you see porn and go out and rape, but we are saying it shifts the way people think about sexual relationships, about intimacy, about women,” Dines said.
“A lot of people really don’t realize what porn looks like online. If a 12-year-old searches for porn in Google, he doesn’t get some Playboy pictures, he gets graphic brutal hardcore images of women being choked with tears running down their faces and of the kind of anal sex that has female porn stars in America suffering from anal prolapses,” she said.
“Children are traumatized by what they see. You develop your sexual template around puberty and if you see brutal porn on an industrialized scale then can anyone really suggest that exposure has no effect? Because, if so, then we will have to totally rethink an awful lot of branches of science and psychology,” she said.
Prostur Jonasson of Iceland’s Association of Digital Freedom has branded Jonasson’s proposals as unfeasible, saying that ensuring Internet service providers block pornography would require content to go through a filter, meaning that someone will have the role of deciding what is OK and what is not.
However, Jonasson and his supporters reject claims that restricting access is censorship, and part of the consultation is establishing a legal definition for the pornographic material to be blocked.
“It’s a myth that there is no proper definition for what is porn, 70 percent of European countries do have one in law,” Gunnarsdottir said.
Jonasson has said that the issue must be debated.
“If we cannot discuss a ban on violent pornography, which we all agree has very harmful effects on young people and can have a clear link to incidences of violent crime, then that is not good,” he said.
Other countries will be watching the Icelandic model carefully. There is international concern about the availability and increasing hardcore nature of Internet porn. Many big companies now use Web filters that successfully restrict access to some sites by their employees.
In 2007, the British-based Internet Watch Foundation reported that child pornography on the Internet is becoming more brutal and graphic, and the number of images depicting violent abuse had risen fourfold since 2003 to about 20 percent of all porn content. About 91 percent appear to be children aged under 12. At present attempts to track down and prosecute offenders is a difficult task when multiple international servers are used.
Many of those opposing the idea of the Web porn ban in Iceland are Web-freedom activists concerned at the idea of any Internet censorship and claiming it will lead to the kind of state interference in what people can access in countries such as Saudi Arabia, China and Iran.
The chairman of Iceland’s International Modern Media Institute is Birgitta Jonsdottir, an Icelandic member of parliament and former WikiLeaks activist, who claims the ban will stop companies hosting their business in Iceland. She declared a ban to be “unworkable and unfeasible.” Another WikiLeaks volunteer, International Modern Media Initiative executive director Smari McCarthy, has called the bill “fascist” and the interior minister “insane.”
However, the Icelandic government is serious in tackling the issue and could bring a ban to its statute books within the year.
“We are dedicated to gender equality, we are progressive and we are aware that we are more willing to be more radical than other governments, but I am sure they will follow our lead,” Gunnarsdottir said.