'Net Nanny' Advocate Does Back Flip

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Another hinge on the case for the Government’s proposed internet filter just fell off.

For a while now, when supporters of mandatory ISP-based filtering feel the need for back-up, they have often invoked a particular research paper co-written by Clive Hamilton and Michael Flood in 2003.

They have to, because it’s pretty much the only Australian study ever to look into the relationship between young people and the possible harm they can come to through exposure to pornography on the internet. It has helped their case that Flood is a major figure in Australian social research who has the respect of policy-makers around the country.

But unfortunately for Conroy and co, they won’t be able to count Flood as a supporter any more.

At the recent "Tangled Web" forum in Melbourne, hosted by newmatilda.com, Flood spoke at length about research progress in this area and about his serious doubts that a system of mandatory ISP-based filtering would actually address the dangers he believes exposure to internet pornography presents for young people.

By his own admission, the research Flood and Hamilton did was limited. They based their findings and recommendations on results from a Newspoll telephone survey of just 200 youths aged between 16 and 17. Flood says it was "small research", and that it caused an "absolute media firestorm". It went on to be used as a key reference-point of the pro-filter policy adopted by the ALP before the 2007 election and of the federal Government’s current (and significantly more far-reaching) proposal.

Their research, Youth and Pornography in Australia: Evidence on the extent of exposure and likely effects, asked young people about "their unwanted and their deliberate exposure to X-rated videos and to porn sites online". What they found, in summary, was that in Australia it is increasingly common for young people to be exposed either accidentally or deliberately to sexually explicit material online and that there is evidence of social harms resulting from that exposure.

Subsequent to Hamilton and Flood’s February 2003 discussion paper, the authors published a series of recommendations on regulating youth access to pornography. These recommendations are well known to anyone who has followed debates about internet filtering over the past decade. After the research was released Flood argued strongly in favor of internet filtering in public debates about pornography.

Now, Flood says, he has seen enough evidence to feel differently. "I am now far less convinced than I used to be of the value of ISP-based filtering as a strategy," he said at the forum. "I am much more convinced of its technological problems and I am much more convinced of its political dangers."

It was a significant statement. Aware as he is that within cyber-libertarian discussions on filtering he has for a long time been considered "a baddie", he added, "if you want to use those words and quote me, feel free: that one of the early advocates of ISP-based filtering is now backing away from this. Clive Hamilton on the other hand — my then co-author — is still a firm advocate, I believe, but he and I have gone in separate directions."

Flood is still thoroughly opposed to harmful pornography being available to minors online and is keen to underline the risk of children being accidentally exposed to it. At the outset he identifies this issue as a crucial sticking point within the debate. "I do think there is a myth that circulates among some cyber-libertarians if you like, or some freedom of speech advocates, that porn doesn’t cause harm," he said. "There’s a kind of casual or confident claim that there is no evidence that porn is related to sexual violence against women or sexual violence against children. It seems to me that’s bluntly naive, and bluntly inaccurate. I think there is enough evidence to say that exposure to porn is harmful for children. It doesn’t mean we should censor it — I think that is a different debate. But I do think it’s hard to argue against the evidence of negative effect."

Flood reminded the forum that it’s important to understand that there are different sorts of harm. "For example, the effects that have been documented are that particularly the youngest children, children who are eight or nine or 10 may be shocked or disturbed or upset by unwanted or premature encounters with pictures of people having sex or other kinds of sexually explicit material." He admits that there is a proportion of those children who aren’t upset — who will "simply close down the site or tell their parents, or look at something else. But some children are upset and report being disturbed and that is something to be aware of." Secondly, some children are being disturbed by some of the types of sexual depictions among the sheer range that are available.

He cites examples from extensive US and Dutch studies that find that increasing numbers of young people experience "unwanted exposure to porn that they found disturbing" in accidental and deliberate contexts.

However, he also noted that there are some effects of exposure to porn that may not be considered harmful at all. For example, according to Flood, this kind of exposure can have what he sees as a beneficial liberalising effect. "It’s well-documented that children and young people, who are exposed to sexual content, in advertising and other mainstream media and in porn, develop more liberal attitudes. They are more likely to think that other people are having sex. They are more likely to think that pre-marital and non-marital sex is OK, they are more likely to think that homosexuality is OK (I think that’s a good thing) and so on."

But the effect he is most concerned about is "sexual aggressiveness, a growing tolerance of sexual aggression and a growing willingness to participate in sexual aggression". He reiterates that "there is consistent and reliable evidence that the consumption of porn, particularly violent porn as you might expect, is related to sexual aggression, it’s related to more sexually aggressive attitudes — that is, thinking it’s OK to force a girl into sex or that violence against women is sexy."

Unusually in this debate, Flood’s argument goes beyond explaining the precise dangers to children of exposure to pornographic material. He describes the Government’s current approach as "fundamentally misguided" but warns that "those who argue against these Government strategies need to have good alternative strategies for how we address them."

In that context he is keen to focus on making recommendations other than ISP-based filtering because he sees a continuing need for solutions. And among the solutions Flood sees are more sophistocated education, better research and — interestingly — better porn.

In case there is any confusion, Flood clarifies that he is pro-choice when it comes to porn. "In the report that Clive Hamilton and I authored in 2003," he pointed out, "we said that adults should continue to have access to porn, in X-rated videos and DVDs and we wanted to transfer the system of classification to the net [so that]materials … would pass the Office of Film and Literature classifications standards — so not violence, not child porn."

His discussion of pornography is complex and enlightening and leads us through to the kinds of debate the Federal Government and civil society should be aiming to have: debates that could look simultaneously and intelligently at both harm reduction and access for adults to sexual material online.

Flood believes there are social benefits resulting from increasingly diverse representation of sexualities, body types and consenting activities in contemporary pornography. But he also says we need more content coming out of the porn industry that "abandons the kind of routinely callous depictions of women and sex that are its bread and butter at the moment". Further, he suggests that "we need a much more responsible adult online industry with stronger age verification systems, with less free tours, with a kind of a brown-paper wrapping of its front pages so it’s simply less possible for people — particularly minors — to see porn in the ways that are possible now."

Flood is keen to remind people that his 2003 research also called for social and educational strategies in relation to young people and their understanding of pornography, not just an ISP-based filter. "We argued for porn education. We said that we should be going into schools and teaching children how to respond more critically to the material that they see online whether deliberately or accidentally, so that they become more critical media consumers."

Flood goes so far as to question why no-one is arguing that people under 18 should be able to access porn, given that "we say that 16 and 17 year olds can have consenting sex, why can’t they look at pictures of other people having consenting sex?" He concedes this is not the debate for now but it’s certainly another interesting consideration if the debate were to be opened up.

Incredibly, as the debate for and against a filter marches on (as presumably the real-world trials chug along somewhere in Australia), there has been little advance in the sociological research about teenagers and porn in Australia. As far as Flood is aware, his is still the only research in the country that is "focussed on children’s and young people’s consumption of or exposure to porn". A common criticism of the filter proposal is that it’s justification — combating cyber crime and protecting children online — is based on too little research, or research that has been done outside of Australia. Critics such as Colin Jacobs, from Electronic Frontiers Australia, have argued that the Government has made a poor effort in presenting any evidence to justify what is a very expensive and complex policy. Michael Flood suspects the research he co-authored with Clive Hamilton is "probably still being influential in contemporary government and other agendas on this issue".

That may be set to change. The Government has commissioned a university study into cyber-safety issues, due to report in July next year. Currently, Flood is a member of the reference group for a pilot project based in Warrnambool in western Victoria. The project is developing an educational resource kit for distribution in schools, aimed at equipping young people to think critically and constructively about the harmful effects of pornography consumption on their perceptions of men, women and sexuality.

The Australian Christian Lobby’s official pro-filter website urges us to "make pollies to sit up and listen". Ironically they share that message with civil libertarians and critics of the filter. Members of the ACL may like to join Conroy in revisiting Flood’s research too, and listen a little more carefully to the author of the research that they have touted so enthusiastically.

Michael Flood is a research fellow at the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, at La Trobe University in Melbourne.

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