In the age of instant information, globe-spanning viral videos and the World Wide Web, can a thoroughly wired country become a porn-free zone? Authorities in Iceland want to find out.
The government of the tiny North Atlantic nation is drafting plans to ban pornography, in print and online, in an attempt to protect children from a tide of violent sexual imagery.
The proposal by Interior Minister Ogmundur Jonasson has caused an uproar. Opponents say the move will censor the Web, encourage authoritarian regimes and undermine Iceland's reputation as a Scandinavian bastion of free speech.
Advocates say it is a sensible measure that will shelter children from serious harm.
"When a 12-year-old types `porn' into Google, he or she is not going to find photos of naked women out on a country field, but very hardcore and brutal violence," said Halla Gunnarsdottir, political adviser to the interior minister.
"There are laws in our society. Why should they not apply to the Internet?"
Gunnarsdottir says the proposals currently being drawn up by a committee of experts will not introduce new restrictions, but simply uphold an existing if vaguely worded law.
Pornography is already banned in Iceland, and has been for decades -- but the term is not defined, so the law is not enforced. Magazines such as Playboy and Penthouse are on sale in book stores, and more hardcore material can be bought from a handful of sex shops. "Adult" channels form part of digital TV packages.
Iceland's left-of-center government insists it is not setting out to sweep away racy magazines or censor sex. The ban would define pornography as material with violent or degrading content.
Gunnarsdottir said the committee is still exploring the details of how a porn ban could be enforced. One possibility would be to make it illegal to pay for porn with Icelandic credit cards. Another, more controversial, route would be a national Internet filter or a list of Web site addresses to be blocked.
That idea has Internet-freedom advocates alarmed.
"This kind of thing does not work. It is technically impossible to do in a way that has the intended effect," said Smari McCarthy of free-speech group the International Modern Media Institute. "And it has negative side effects -- everything from slowing down the Internet to blocking content that is not meant to be blocked to just generally opening up a whole can of worms regarding human rights issues, access to information and freedom of expression." (continued...)
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