UK’s Plan to Block Porn and “Adult Subjects” Doesn’t Bode Well for Gay and Sex Ed Resources

In the most recent episode of Won’t Somebody Think of the Children?, UK Prime Minister David Cameron announced that ISPs will be blocking “legal pornography and other adult subjects” by default because online porn is “corroding childhoods.” The four biggest ISPs have agreed to comply — covering 95% of UK households — and, by 2014, all new and existing customers will need to proactively opt out of porn filters.

Let’s get the easy arguments out of the way. Relying on network-level filtering, which is far less robust than device-based systems, to block content — that’s not how the internet works. Crossing your fingers that those under the age of 18 lack the technical literacy to find workarounds, even as you still rely on them to teach you The Google — that’s not how children work. And scanning the big, bad internet for a few big, bad terms in the hope of catching a few elusive big, bad people — that’s not how online crime works.

via Daily Mail

“Campaign: How the Mail has led the charge against vile images spread across the internet” by spreading “think of the children” headlines across the internet
via Daily Mail

 

The internet is not a safe space. This is a problem. But flawed attempts to make it one could be actively harming those for whom safe spaces will be compromised by an indiscriminate default-on porn filter.

In 2002, in response to the U.S. 2000 Child Information Protection Act (CIPA), JAMA published a study titled “Does Pornography-Blocking Software Block Access to Health Information on the Internet?” The work surfaced two key findings: first, the more restrictive the filter settings, the more health information sites — including Planned Parenthood — got disproportionately blocked.

At the least restrictive blocking setting, configured to block only pornography, the products blocked a mean of only 1.4% of health information sites. [...] The mean pornography blocking rate was 87%. At moderate settings, the mean blocking rate was 5% for health information and 90% for pornography. At the most restrictive settings, health information blocking increased substantially (24%), but pornography blocking was only slightly higher (91%).

It’s worth keeping in mind that translating those percentages into reality requires considering how the sheer number of porn sites easily overshadows sexual health ones.

Second and more worryingly, sites to do with sexuality are disproportionately blocked.

However, [at the least restrictive setting] about 10% of health sites found using some search terms related to sexuality (eg, safe sex, condoms) and homosexuality (eg, gay) were blocked.

While the internet and the way we use it have obviously changed a great deal since 2002, it’s not clear that the network-level filtering that’s under discussion would have a more nuanced approach to blocking objectionable content.

The UK already has a form of widespread content filtering in place: most mobile providers switch parental-control filters on by default. The process by which sites are filtered is inconsistent across providers and largely opaque, relying on a broad, self-regulated framework that was last updated in 2009. Open Rights Group, a UK-based digital rights advocacy group, released a study in 2011 in conjunction with the London School of Economics & Political Science noting that these filters were often overzealous.

Firstly, sites are often incorrectly classified as containing objectionable material. Second, phone operators aren’t forthcoming about the details of how their filtering systems work or what kind of content they block. Third, it’s not clear how to report sites that are erroneously blocked. Finally, it’s difficult even for adults to turn the filtering off.

Just earlier this year, sites to do with homosexuality, feminism, and even political satire were blocked by mobile providers as “mature content.” Pink News reported that mobile providers were blocking access to their site and other LGBT interest websites. As Willard Foxton at the Telegraph put it, “This was bad enough when these services were blocking porn [...] but now it seems overzealous providers are blocking access to anything a Catholic Bishop might consider for adults only.”

Cameron is still waffling on the details so lots of unanswered questions remain as to what exactly these filters will block. How will these sites be decided, who’s deciding, and who’s regulating the regulators?

It’s virtually a given, however, that sites linked to sexuality and sexual health will be taken down as collateral damage. It remains paralysingly hard for porn-sifting algorithms (and people) to tell “horny am4teur college chicks b@nging” and “How to Have Lesbian Sex for the First Time: NSFW Sunday Special” apart. Sex/uality education and support for LGBTQ teens already leaves a great deal to be desired, and this could potentially restrict access to crucial information and support even more.

The next phase involves pushing for keyword blocks on search engines like Google and Bing. Given the transnational implications of this, it’s likely to face a lot more pushback from the industry; additionally, Google has repeatedly pointed out that it already actively works against online child pornography.

What receives even less attention than sexual health & sexuality-linked sites is what keyword blocks would mean for abuse survivors looking for support or information online. Child abusers share illegal material over peer-to-peer networks and other less easily located channels, while vulnerable people rely on search engines and online social networks to find spaces where they can make sense of what happened to them or find others to talk to. It’s easy enough for David Cameron to condemn “depraved and illegal search terms,” but for far too many people, those terms describe their actual experiences, and not being able to see their experiences reflected on the internet can increase feelings of isolation.

The move appears to be engineered to garner widespread mainstream support. It’s not an issue of a centre-right Conservative social agenda: Labour not only backs it, but wants “filters on all ISPs and a proper age verification system” among other additional measures. Cameron made his speech against the backdrop of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) HQ, bundling this measure with others like a ban on porn depicting rape that the End Violence Against Women Coalition is “delighted” about. The Daily Mail sees no hypocrisy in running a victory lap.

via @samradford Silver lining: could we get the Daily Mail blocked?

Silver lining: could we get the Daily Mail blocked?
via @samradford

Yet these issues – and these are all separate issues, for child abuse is not child “sexualisation” is not rape glorification is not political posturing on who can do more to Save the Innocent – are layered in so many levels of disagreement any “universal” approaches should be immediately deemed deeply suspect. Certainly the problem of objectionable and dangerous sexual content on the internet is real and worth addressing, but it’s not yet clear whether this is the way to go about it.

Avatar of Fikri

Politiqueer, student and future cubicle drone-person fond of trees, bicycles, and strawberry sponge cake. Abuses en-dashes. Undecided about the Oxford comma. Follow her on Twitter or her occasionally updated blog.

Fikri has written 36 articles for us.

33 Comments

  1. Thumb up 1

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    “The UK already has a form of widespread content filtering in place: most mobile providers switch parental-control filters on by default.”

    I had to call them up to get Autostraddle unblocked! I was quite annoyed at the time.

    • Thumb up 3

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      Really? Who was that with?

      I am really quite annoyed about this whole thing, It’s going to have no impact other than inconveniencing some people whilst not actually stopping anything. As far as i remember guys sexualising girls had nothing to do with porn, they just did it anyway, never mind how porn was only see as ‘good for a laugh’ because of how fake everything seemed. Never mind that if sex ed were better in the first place they definitely wouldn’t be learning everything about sex from porn.

      Still, how quick will it be for kids to just learn to use proxies if they want to watch porn. I’ve almost convinced myself that if any change happens, it will be that there are more hackers around.

      Also i can’t actually find anything about this, how far does the ‘depicting sexual violence’ thing go, because that hardly bodes well for kinky people at all.

    • Thumb up 0

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      I had to go in to get them to unblock things so I could read articles linked to on Things I Read That I Love! Articles about sexuality, crime vignettes, things like that. Nothing porn-y.

      I’m on O2 and my boyfriend has had to do it on Orange.

  2. Thumb up 2

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    Thanks for writing about this. This is so true: “Sex/uality education and support for LGBTQ teens already leaves a great deal to be desired, and this could potentially restrict access to crucial information and support even more.”

    Great research & I learned a lot reading this. I hope there will some pull-back on this and/or filters could be something families could opt-in to versus them becoming automatic and blanketing over resources for sexual health.

    Awesome job, Fikri!!!

    • Thumb up 4

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      Opt in always seems like a better system to me, and is actually something that already exists.

      And i know they work because i couldn’t even look up stuff on WW2 when i was 11, because the content was deemed ‘young teen’.

      The computer is not a damn electronic babysitter, parents shouldn’t treat it like one, or they should expect their kid to find this stuff.

  3. Thumb up 14

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    God, this makes me so angry. It’s like people will go to any extreme to deal with these issues without actually having to talk to children and teenagers, which is exactly what they NEED to be doing. Shoving everything under the rug and trying to stop young people from seeing/knowing anything about them is just going to create more problems, they need to be discussed in context. We need to talk about consent, sexualisation and all of these other things, censoring and nanny-stating does not work.

  4. Thumb up 19

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    The UK can’t even keep porn out of their newspapers, but they’re trying to get it taken off the internet. Nice to see they have their priorities straight.

    Also, “Web porn is making teen boys see girls as sex objects”? No, I think you’re confusing “teen boys” with “all men” and “web porn” with “society”.

  5. Thumb up 4

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    It is the job of a parent to control what their children can or cannot watch. If they set up parental control & their kids know how to take said parental control off, then restrict their use on personal laptops/ipads/smartphones, minimize that. A child is not entitled to expensive tech to begin with anyways.

    Also, porn does set women to appear as sex objects, but if a child learns such behaviour, it is the job of the parent to sit them down & talk to them and ingraining it in their brains that this is not how you treat people in real life. You don’t mask the symptoms, you cure the problem.

    It is so sad that it’s always LGBTQ that have to suffer filtration. I bet if something stated “hetero,” or “straight,” people wouldn’t even bat an eyelash. By being this way, it implies that there is something wrong and inappropriate with LGBTQ.

    Sigh…

    • Thumb up 2

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      wow, I hate it so much when people use arguments like “it’s the parents’ job to supervise internet usage”

      newsflash: some parents are really irresponsible, some parents are even very abusive and outright do not care about what their children do – on the internet or outside it – how is it okay to punish children (by making them extra vulnerable online) for having bad parents?

  6. Thumb up 3

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    What really annoys me about this is that at the core of all this, these lawmakers are parents and their voters are parents with kids, and they just want to make sure that The Children Are Safe. So they try and create ways to make “safe zones” in places like the internet where filtering internet content is nearly impossible. Actually, I’m just going to say it’s impossible, based on the rate at which technology evolves nowadays.
    The problem is, though, that the definition of “safe space” may mean different things for the parents and the lawmakers, or the parents and their kids…for a LGBTQ kid, those one or two or 900 voices that they find online may help them figure out who they are so much more than these MPs can even imagine…kids listen to what their parents say, regardless of what they say back. I guess I’m kind of preaching to the choir here, but sex-positive and LGBTQ resources should no longer be synonymous with “porn.”

  7. Thumb up 1

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    Ugh. The opt out had better be easy. I’d feel awkward calling up to ask. My old mobile provider didn’t seem to have blocks but 02 and Orange seem to have something against me.

    I’ll be concerned if I can no longer search things that have happened to me, or if I can’t find out about sex anymore. :(

    I was slightly amused and mostly frustrated when the NRA’s politician grading site was blocked as adult content and wondered how that would fly in the US. I needed it for studying.

    • Thumb up 9

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      I’m imagining how awkward it could potentially be…

      Hello, how may I help you?
      HiIdliketounplockmypornplease
      Sorry, what was that?
      I meant, um, I’d like to unblock the internet filter. Please.
      Can you tell me why you’d like to unblock it?
      ….
      Hello?
      Yes, I, er… I’d like to watch 18+ videos.
      Like youtube? *shuffles papers* That should be unblocked for you already.
      NO. I mean… *videos*.
      Yes, you can watch videos even with the filter on.
      OH MY GOD. I MEAN PORN. I WANT TO WATCH PORN.
      …. oh. Why didn’t you say so? I’ll just pass you on to my colleague and they’ll unblock it for you. Now, we’re doing an optional survey on the porn you like to watch for the government, would you like to take part?

      :p

  8. Thumb up 1

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    Ugh, I lost my post!
    I remember the filters that were on the computers when I was in secondary school. They blocked pretty much everything and they were so frustrating I used a proxy to do research for my work until they realised we were pretty much all using proxies and blocked those too.

    It really worries me that this is even an option. Surely parents could just *not* give their children a smartphone, disconnect the Internet on their games consoles and put the computer in a public setting with parental guidance settings on and monitor what they’re doing? Shouldn’t we be trying to educate parents if they aren’t very tech friendly instead of relying on ISPs to attempt to moderate content?

    I also hope opting out is easy. I know that when my phone had parental settings on, it blocked queer tumblrs and fanfiction and webcomics which wasn’t fun.

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      I think some people are worried about parents who take those resources away from kids completely, when the kids would benefit from access to sex education and support with issues with sexuality, sexual health and so on. Parents should be talking to their kids about porn and what’s appropriate, but parents who refuse may stop their kids from getting important info.

  9. Thumb up 5

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    I can already tell you that this filter will block almost everything regarding trans stuff. I mean, in trans resources and sites, genitals and other anatomical/physiological stuff are often discussed and the filters will almost certainly find those words and block the sites. I wouldn’t be surprised if a good 50-90% of trans sites get blocked.

    I definitely think opt-in is better. Combine that with internet filters installed on a computer itself, should be pretty effective if parents want that. Won’t be impossible to circumvent, obviously, but it would prevent kids from accidentally stumbling onto stuff. As far as the intentional, parents need to talk to their kids about stuff, and having good sex ed early enough will do wonders.

  10. Thumb up 3

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    I truly despise the Dailymail, their hypocrisies have been pointed out so many times by so many people , they’re happy to picture young teen girls who look ‘older their years’ ‘frolicking’ in bikini’s and pools and so on.

    Thing is, this started as a crusade against child-porn, now I don’t think anyone of sound mind would suggest that doing more to combat that is a bad thing, however ISP’s and search engine provider already do a huge amount to combat this problem, but it became about porn in general when someone probably pointed out the proposals would have no impact on the way child pornograthy is shared and distributed.

    And so it’s ended looking like a ‘The Thick Of It’ style satire:

    Dailymail: Mr Prime Minister, what are you going to do to combat child porn

    PM Dave (probably chillaxing somewhere) : We’ll push through re-forms forcing ISP’s to use filters and force potentially perverted customers to opt in into viewing adult content, that’ll work’

    Advisor: But Dave, paedophiles generally don’t use Google or Yahoo to find this vile material!

    PM Dave: What? why didn’t you tell me this before, I’ve got a press conference in two hours to make a huge announcement on this, what am I going to do?

    Advisor: Let’s just turn it from child abuse to protecting children from adult material, the press will love it!!

    Yes, thanks, because what we really need is ISP’s being responsible for parenting and protecting children.

    Finally, there was an amusing article here about how clueless the governments own filtering laws advisor is about the way the internet works:

    http://www.zdnet.com/mp-behind-uk-internet-porn-filter-hacked-accuses-blogger-who-reported-it-7000018542/

  11. Thumb up 0

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    Although it is not desirable, I would be willing to sacrifice 10% of the lgbtq etc. websites that I use to ensure the online protection of children. However we need to work towards a safer internet and I think if the internet began to be censored, the problems would soon become clear with national censorship and then we could work towards a safer internet for everyone. I know it’s annoying but really, child safety must come first?

    • Thumb up 3

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      If only 10% was gotten, then there would be a lot more reason to go with it. However, it would be a lot higher than 10%, especially in particular GSM (Gender and Sexual Minority) communities.

      The big worry I have with internet censorship on a large scale is how to prevent it being used to stifle political dissent. I mean, it is not an inevitable thing that this would happen, but it would be a huge risk.

      Also, given the international nature of the internet but the very lopsided national locations of the major DNS servers and search engines, everyone would be stuck playing to the fiddle of a small list of countries (mostly composed of the West) who already throw their weight around too much in other countries’ business.

  12. Thumb up 1

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    First off, fuck the Daily Mail. Always and forever amen.

    This nonsense is like how I keep finding DIVA magazine next to Nuts, because obviously anything involving lesbians must be porn for blokes. I’d love to see the look on some guy’s face if he bought it for hawt chixx banging and opened it up to find it’s all features on IVF and folk music.

    Good thing it’s probably all empty rhetoric: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jul/21/david-cameron-war-internet-porn

  13. Thumb up 2

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    Child safety is important, on the internet and elsewhere.

    There are really two types of safety whose discussions have gotten mangled up here.

    One is safety from not stumbling onto or otherwise seeing adult content accidentally. Two is safety from being able to find it if they go intentionally looking for it.

    The first one is luckily something that major search engines have been working on pretty decently, though unfortunately some stuff gets through. The second one is hard to prevent for the tech savvy kid, but easy for the one who is not. The UK’s filtering plan would make the first way less likely but the second not so much less likely because the ease in bypassing it (though a lot of kids will probably just load up their computers with viruses in their early attempts).

    I think all ISP’s should give the option during setup for these reasons and make it easy to adjust the settings on an as need basis, but default on without explicitly asking about it is a problem. That and how crummy the filters actually work. That makes for a problem even with explicit asking, because it will block legitimate sites too (setup page should definitely explain that the filters don’t cut out everything and there are legitimate things that it clips).

    It would be really nice if there was greater disclosure about how each ISP’s filters would work, but I also understand why they don’t (sites could be tailor made to circumvent it). Its a most unfortunate situation.

  14. Thumb up 4

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    ohhh I have a lot of feelings on this! But in a nutshell, yes the daily mail is redic and shouldn’t be taken seriously. (A bit like Cameron)
    However, I work with young people who offend and without going into details, we have seen a HUGE increase in the number of children BEING arrested for committing sexual offences against even younger children… And I don’t just mean a few extra cases a year, I mean a month. For every offence, there is at least one victim. So although perhaps the strategy of blocking porn on the net might not be perfect, I am in favour of anything, even if it be implemented in a slightly reactive manner, that might prevent inappropriate sexualised behaviour in children.
    I’m not saying it’s without its flaws… but seriously guys, we have to do something because it’s getting out of hand.

  15. Thumb up 0

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    I feel bad, because I previously wasn’t really concerned about this – having to opt in to be able to view porn doesn’t seem like such a struggle, and I do believe that when children and adolescents are viewing porn before they receive adequate (or any) sex ed is harmful. Porn (when its not coercive/exploitative shit, which it sometimes can be) is an on-screen depiction of acts mutually agreed on between two or more consenting adults off-screen. What you see is an adolescent schoolgirl getting punished by her teacher or w/e as performed. I don’t think it’s controversial to say that most mainstream porn (if not all) is a performance rather than any kind of reality. So, to be honest, I’m in favour of restricting minor access to porn – at the very least, make it harder to find! I don’t want to typo teletubbies and find myself surrounded by fat fetish porn, y’know? (Obviously the ideal solution would be to improve sex ed enough that nobody’s actually going to have to use porn as their first resort for sexual information, but that’s going to take a long time apparently *eyeroll*)

    But the way this restriction is being enacted is obviously not… good. Education and information =/= fap material.

    (I’m quite underslept so I’m worried this is really blather-y or that I’ve accidentally said something awful and offensive)

  16. Thumb up 0

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    Perhaps all countries could take a few lessons from Iceland.
    Earlier this year iceland was seeking an internet (hardcore) pornography ban and they have some of the most progressive views of sex and sexual education, you can look at this video about the difference between sex and violence http://grapevine.is/Home/ReadArticle/Icelandic-Sex-Education-Film-Released

    I don’t think that a porn ban necessarily has to mean no access to sexual health and LGBT sites, I understand why there is some concern that this may happen (especially in UK’s political climate) but lets not all forget what the real issue is here and that is growing rates of sexual violence in young (and old) people, much of which has increased with the increasingly easy access to violent porn

  17. Thumb up 2

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    A porn block will not magically solve all the cases of sexual abuse in the UK. All internet providers already offer web filters for adult content. Internet filtering software is already freely available as well. Child pornography is already illegal, as well it should be. Pornography involving actual rape is already illegal, as well it should be. The majority of responsible porn sites on the internet I believe have an age confirmation on the front page, telling the viewer that adult material lies beyond, and giving them the option to close the window or be taken to the google homepage.

    What should NOT be illegal, is images and videos of something two consenting adults can do legally in their bedroom. People have a right not to /like/ the fact that kinks and bdsm and roleplaying exist, but to criminalize the viewing of legal activities because certain people personally dislike the practices is dangerous, and could well be a first step on a slippery slope to more comprehensive censorship.

    The only way forward is education. The more young people are told that healthy relationships, sexual or otherwise, are about asking what the other person is comfortable with, and then respecting those boundries, whether it’s a hug or oral sex. People are not idiots, and are perfectly capable of distinguishing fantasy (porn) from reality, given adequate education. To think otherwise is nothing less than an insult to the majority of the population, and assumes that most people are nothing more than potential rapists and abusers just waiting to be ‘triggered’.

    (A little bit of personal anecdata regarding censorship – when I was taking A Level History back in secondary school, one of our major coursework projects was a study of terrorism from the 1950′s onwards. Of course, anything even mentioning the word ‘terrorism’ was banned from search results on the school library computers, and the same for the public library computers. There weren’t that many textbooks freely available on the subject in my secondary school, which limited my class’s research pretty much to home computers – and I still knew people in 2008-2009 who didn’t have computers at home. Anyone who didn’t have access to an un-censored internet connection would have pretty much failed A Level History at that time :/ )

  18. Thumb up 3

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    My (UK, state) school’s sex education was passable because of two individuals. One was the school nurse, who ran lunchtime sexual health clinics where pupils of any age could go to discuss sexuality, contraceptive options, get condoms etc. confidentially, she also covered the 6th form block in posters and put Chlamydia test kits in the toilets. I’m not sure how popular the clinics were but the fact that they were there was vitally important when over half of the school’s pupils came from very rural villages where even getting to a doctor’s surgery without your parents and everyone else knowing was ridiculously difficult. I’ve since found out that she was, and still is, running this in secret behind the head’s back as he doesn’t agree with it and is a massive shit.

    The other was a teacher who took my biweekly pshe lessons for a year. As far as I’m aware, these lessons were taught by whichever teacher had a coinciding gap in their timetable, so you would probably end up with someone who would stick a 30 year old video of a woman attending pre-natal classes on, then collapse with embarrassment on the front desk and get on with their marking. Or someone who told all the girls in the class never to drink or go out in the evening because ‘you will get raped’ (which would, of course, be the only mention of rape or consent you would ever hear in school). This teacher was absolutely fantastic, her DON’Ts advice was restricted to, ‘for christs sake don’t put it in your ear,’ and telling us that sex on the beach is fun ‘until you get sand in your vagina’. She was upfront about porn, she would answer any questions (from the anonymous question box) about anything totally sincerely, and I don’t remember her ever gendering anything. It was enough that she never turned round to all the boys and said, ‘now, your GIRLfriends,’ but I don’t think she ever referred to any sexual act as between a man and a woman, she just talked about the bits used. According to my sister she’s now including gender identity and transphobia in her lessons about bullying.

    The thing is that without these two people our sex education would have been almost nonexistent, and even with them I think we all (and especially if you were lgbtq) had to do a hell of a lot of googling. There’s already a bit of a problem with lgbtq stuff being conflated with porn on the internet already (ever wanted to know how many lesbians are in nursing?) but this is going to make searching for resources even harder. The response to worries about this (I’m thinking of the tumblr tags thing) generally seems to be along the lines of ‘well, we’re not filtering ‘lgbt’,’ but what use is that when the contents of the page will be filtered, and when search results will for that very broad term will contain few pages specifically for trans* people.

    I would hate to be pubescent right now.

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      (I meant to say that the 2nd person talked about consent too)

      also, there are plans for the block to cover pro-anorexia sites, which may have good intentions behind it but is still going to make it harder for young sufferers and survivors of another thing to find help online

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