Future

A Longtime Haven Of Internet Freedom, Is Iceland Set To Ban Online Porn?

The erupting "Great Geysir" in Haukadalur, Iceland
The erupting "Great Geysir" in Haukadalur, Iceland
Thomas Kirchner

REYKJAVIK - Mid-February this year, British tabloids published the news that Iceland’s leftwing-green Minister of the Interior Ögmundur Jónasson wanted to limit access to online porn on the island.

Ways of doing that, according to the minister, could be to block certain IP addresses, or to make it impossible to pay certain sites with an Icelandic credit card. Another option – and this was the one that got the most public attention – the government could install a filter that would remove all unwanted content from the Icelandic net.

The reaction from net activists was outrage. First of all, they said, such filters are never technically perfect, and secondly putting them in place would open the door in Iceland to a Big Brother state, like China or Iran, that censors large parts of the Internet. A filter in a country that saw itself as a “haven” for Internet freedom and freedom of information in general? Smari McCarthy, Director of the International Modern Media Initiative in Reykjavik, called the plans “fascist” and the minister crazy.

But the idea wasn't actually the minister’s – it’s that of his political advisor, Halla Gunnarsdóttir, 32, a teacher and former congressional reporter. Talking with her in a Reykjavik café, Halla (in Iceland first names are more important) expresses irritation that people keep referring to a new “law” when things are nowhere near that far yet. "The whole thing started when we were looking at how we could lower the number of rapes," she explains. "Then at a conference there were reports by investigators, social workers and academics on how brutal pornography affects children. They had observed that kids imitate violent scenes. So we formed a commission and we’re currently discussing their suggestions."

It has been forbidden for decades to disseminate porn in Iceland. But there is no clear-cut definition of pornography, and the government is working on one that will separate "okay sex" and "brutal and demeaning" images – a task that has so far defeated the jurists working on it.

To Halla’s mind, however, there is hardly any “okay sex” on the net. When kids search under the word sex, results aren’t "cuddly porn with consensual sex," she says, but rather "brutal, revolting trash." She thinks it’s legitimate to consider prohibiting access to that – “you don’t let heroin dealers into a schoolyard, do you?” She adds that she realizes that everything that is prohibited somehow makes its way out there anyway, “but if we could manage to keep 80% of 11-year-olds away from that stuff wouldn’t it be worth a try?”

Scientists have differing views on the effects that hard porn has on children and young teens. While some psychologists note that trauma and disturbed relations with the opposite sex can be a consequence, a 2009 study published by the University of Montreal disagrees.

Sex or violence?

"I’ve had enough of people like Halla," says Birgitta Jónsdóttir, 45, a Pirate party MP who became known as a Wikileaks activist. "My boys are 12 and 21 and spend a lot of time online. I checked their browser, and they haven’t been looking at brutal porn. We protect our kids not with things like filters but by explaining to parents how to teach their kids to interact in a healthy way with computers."

If the government gets involved in this, she believes, the danger of abuses will actually rise. Or there will be goof-ups like what happened in Denmark last year, where the child sex filter ended up blocking access to Google.

To this Halla says: "It’s against the law to drive when you’re drunk. But nobody says that’s the first step to banning driving." She wants the Internet discussion to go further: "It can’t be that the medium determines content, we have to be able to talk about content."

Halla’s not just concerned about protecting children. As a feminist, she wants to see a stop to women being discriminated against, exploited, and raped. And so – like British anti-porn activist Gail Dines – she sees the sex film industry as a major enemy. "This isn’t about a couple of home-made videos. The heads of these companies are young men in suits, who attended some of the world’s top universities."

Raising awareness and educating is important but it’s not enough to fight the sex industry – more radical means are needed to do that. "I understand those who want to protect the net, I’m also for freedom of opinion, exchange of ideas and information. That doesn’t mean I have to accept a violent industry taking hold of a third of the Internet."

There is a tradition in Scandinavia of high taxes, the welfare state, and emancipation as a responsibility of the entire society. The result? Scandinavian countries top all rankings involving equal rights, women in powerful positions, or protection from sexual exploitation, and their societies as a whole are more aware of the rights of women. That all of this means regulation that cuts into rights to freedom is something that is accepted by most people in northern European countries.

Birgitta doesn’t buy all this. “Iceland isn’t Scandinavia. When traffic wardens in Sweden went on strike, people parked properly anyway because they see themselves as part of a system. An Icelander wouldn’t see it that way. Our democracy is young and brittle, and there are abuses everywhere."

She continues: "It boils down to individual responsibility. I don’t want the government to take me off the path to self-destruction; I want the relevant information so I can protect myself. The problem here is us – the Internet just reflects us.” If she doesn’t believe in more regulation, she does believe in more information: "If people smoke less today, it’s because we now know more about the consequences."

Parliamentary elections are being held in Iceland this Saturday. According to polls, the majority of the country’s citizens will not be voting left, and hence will not be in the market for their policy ideas – including their Internet porn filters. The questions, however, remain. How much must a government do to protect its citizens from themselves? To what degree can it base itself on morality, and how much freedom can it take away in so doing?

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Geopolitics

Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3

-Analysis-

LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.


Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

commons.wikimedia.org

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

For if nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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