Digital Rights and Pornography – A child protection catch-22 or lazy policy solutions?

“Our rights are being infringed more and more on every side, and the danger is that we get used to it. So I want to use the 25th anniversary for us all to do that, to take the web back into our own hands and define the web we want for the next 25 years…. “But we need our lawyers and our politicians to understand programming, to understand what can be done with a computer.” – Sir Tim Berners-Lee

The above quote should come as no surprise to anyone with even a passing interest in digital rights. In recent times there has been growing interest by governments in how to respond to the sort of modern social problems that some might argue are facilitated by digital technology. Calls to control social media in times of civil unrest, monitor citizens’ communications in order to catch terrorists and paedophiles and prevent citizens from using encrypted communications just in case they are saying something illegal[4] are all examples of government trying to respond to issues they are challenged on. All of these very clearly highlight an issue raised in Sir Berners-Lee’s quote above – that policy makers and legislators struggle to understand how the web works and how it can be “controlled”, while reflecting very little about whether the outcomes will infringe on the civil rights of citizens.

However, one policy debate that I have been very close to over the last few years, and one that illustrates how digital technology has changed our society and also how it creates new social contexts related to rights based issues, is that of access to pornography and sexual content online. This debate becomes particularly contentious when we explore the growing issue of young people accessing such material online.

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Is Water a New Flashpoint for Asia’s Rising Giants?

In the past, India and China have disputed numerous issues, from trade to territory. Notably, in 1962, disputes over their Himalayan border regions sparked the brief Sino-Indian War. In the 21st century, a new issue has the potential to become a flashpoint between the world’s most populous nations: their shared rivers.

China has planned, and in some cases begun construction on, major hydropower and water diversion projects in its southern regions, including Tibet, which is making the water security of its downstream neighbors more fragile. The glacial Tibetan Plateau, largely controlled by China, is the source of rivers that supply water to approximately 1.5 billion people. Many of Asia’s major rivers—including the Mekong, Brahmaputra, Yangtze, Yellow, Indus, and Salween Rivers—begin in the Tibetan Plateau, and supply water to people living in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Nepal, and mainland Southeast Asia. Thus, China exerts powerful hegemony over Asia’s water resources.

China views the development of rivers originating within its borders as a matter of national sovereignty, not international cooperation. According to one telling Chinese proverb, “Upstream doesn’t suffer.” China does not have river treaties with other nations, making downstream countries vulnerable to water supply disruptions and other environmental damages. In the absence of treaties, downstream nations have no forums for formally resolving water disputes with China, and cannot use international legal institutions to ensure they receive their fair share of water.

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Pornography and digital rights

One of the Internet’s most awe-inducing features is its ability to serve up whatever piece of content you need, whenever you need it. Whether you’re looking for videos of cats riding Roombas, the translated poetry of Goethe or the song of a nightingale, the Internet, thanks to the incredible resources of the World Wide Web, will dish up whatever you’re after. Of course, insofar as online content mirrors our offline imperfections, it’s equally easy to find less salubrious material. As with many other technologies before it, the Internet has provided a new platform for pornographic content, and whatever your sexual predilections, you will find an ample store of online content to meet every desire.

Unsurprisingly, this leads to no small degree of social and political concern, and the UK is currently engaged in an emotive debate as to how best we might balance individual rights to protection from legal but ‘harmful’ online content against rights to sexual freedom and freedom of information or expression. What makes this issue even more controversial is the rather unhelpful tendency of both politicians and media to portray the conflict as one between children’s rights to protection, and adults’ rights to consume pornography. Since 2011 the UK government has sought to drive through a policy of household-level Internet filtering, whereby individuals or families signing up to new broadband contracts would be required to either accept default filtering of online content or explicitly opt in to receive adult material. Announcing the roll-out of such measures in 2013, David Cameron argued, ‘this is, quite simply, about how we protect our children and their innocence’. Put this way, it’s hard to see how anyone could disagree with the premise of filtering out pornographic and other adult content from home Internet connections. Unfortunately, the matter is not quite so clear-cut.

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British Prime Minister David Cameron at the European Council meeting of 6th March 2014. Photo credit: The Prime Minister's Office.

The referendum on EU membership: a very British affair

The UK referendum on EU membership may be many months away but with David Cameron laying out his stall with other European leaders, we should be clear that we are embarked on the journey and already some way down the track. It is easy to think of referendums as one-shot deals but in reality they are not. Rather, referendums are long-term games and in this case the game was started in 2013. And it’s easy to think of this as a European process, but whatever grand meals may be consumed in other European capitals, this is very much a result of domestic British politics. The EU referendum is largely down to domestic drivers and the result will likely be shaped as much by the party politics between and within UK parties as by European factors.

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Why Scotland should adopt the Land Value Tax

The Commission on Local Tax Reform was set up by the Scottish government in February 2015 to consider reform of local government taxation. In this article, submitted as written evidence to the Commission, I make the case for a land value tax (LVT).

1. Local tax should be based on…

The value of the land you own. This is for reasons first set out by Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations (WN) Book V. I am pleased that the Cabinet Secretary for Finance referred to this in his speech introducing Land and Buildings Transactions Tax (LBTT).

A land value tax is the best of all taxes for three reasons.

Land doesn’t move and can’t be hidden.
Land tax best satisfies Smith’s canons of taxation (proportionate to benefits received; certain; convenient; non-distorting – see Wealth of Nations, Book V.ii.b)
It taxes ground-rents, which Smith calls ‘a still more proper subject of taxation than the rent of houses’, because ‘no discouragement will thereby be given to any sort of industry’.

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The emotional amoral egoism of states

In 1812 Napoleon Bonaparte, at the heights of his power, set out for the most adventurous, and ultimately fatal, military campaign. Napoleon’s Grand Army of over 500,000 men, the largest force ever mobilized to that date, was led to the lands of Russia. Historians have long investigated the misjudgements of this campaign and the question of hubris emerges as an underlying factor for Napoleon’s vehemence to pursue a disastrous campaign. Hubris is exaggerated pride, often combined with arrogance. Excessive confidence and reassurance, inspired from his established conquests and grandiosity, further inflated by narcissism, led Napoleon to conduct a military campaign that could be allegedly classified as irrational because it took place against the backdrop of a series of warnings and unfavorable forecasts from his lieutenants. The motivations for setting to conquer Czar Alexander’s Russia were less driven by the geopolitical necessity of defeating a rival power as by the impetus “to satisfy a hubris-infected personality” and an insatiable “hunger (…) for applause from others”.

Traditional theoretical accounts on the interaction between states have largely favoured the view of states as rational actors, attributing too little to the role of emotions. The Realist assumption that leaders (even elected ones) act predominantly rationally implied similar expectations on the level of states. This claim can be countered on several fronts. The state can be a rational, self-interested, power-maximizing actor, yet deconstructing the discourse on state rationality and state egoism, defined as the pursuit of national interests, paints a more complex picture of the facets of state conduct. This takes us beyond the established IR dogma about the state.

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A testing and tormenting time for political parties after the 2015 British general election

The ‘sweetest victory’ of the Conservatives, as David Cameron put it on May 8th, and the sweeping landslide victory of the SNP, winning all but three of the Scottish seats, were indeed shocking wake-up calls for all those concerned about British politics. Labour’s unexpectedly disastrous loss of 26 seats led Ed Miliband to announce his immediate resignation as Labour leader. The Lib-Dems were wiped away, going from 57 to just eight seats, causing the resignation of Nick Clegg as party leader. The party was severely punished by voters who blamed it for betraying everything it had stood for in seeking power. Looking at these results, one could argue that the British voters decided at the very last moment to prevent the formation of another coalition government, assumingly returning to their traditional attitude of regarding coalitions as an exception.

For the polling companies too, the election results proved a nightmare. In order to recover their privileged capacity to influence the media, voters, and parties, they are in the course of reexamining why their pre-election forecasts appeared to be inaccurate.

Meanwhile, one shall have a thorough look at how many votes the grassroots parties such as the SNP, UKIP, and the Greens, gained in this election. Even though their positions in the political spectrum span from the left to the extreme right, the total number of votes won by these three parties amounted to nearly 6.5 million, against the Conservatives’ 11.3 million. Amongst them, UKIP failed to get more than one seat and is now in the midst of an internal turmoil. Despite that, Nigel Farage is generally praised for contributing to the party’s net gain from 9.6 to 12.6 per cent of the vote. In particular, UKIP has remained popular among those who are disillusioned with the aloofness of the political elite.

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Moving Beyond Movements: Exploring paths of everyday citizenship in urban South Africa

In the rich literature that has emerged on social movements in post-apartheid South Africa, there have been many analyses that explore the degree to which particular social movements cooperate with the state or adopt a more antagonistic stance. Some break this picture down further, exploring the degree to which movements are able to cultivate or capitalise upon unique relationships with specific state actors or departments. Those kinds of accounts remind us that the state is, in reality, a collection of individuals and institutions that are often heterogeneous and fragmented, if not in active conflict with each other. This work has helped us to gain a more nuanced understanding of South Africa’s political landscape and the nature of statehood and citizenship within it.

Less prevalent in the literature on popular politics are studies of individuals and the diverse relationships they hold with state actors and institutions as they traverse between social movements and what Raul Zibechi would call ‘societies in movement’. And yet, this focus on ideas, identity, and practice in the midst of everyday life is crucial if we are to grasp what it means to be involved in grassroots politics.

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