Don’t Fear the XXX Domain

Illuminated Sign: XXX Peep Shows
Image: PinkMoose/Flickr

After seven years of wrangling, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) has approved XXX as a sponsored generic top level domain (TLD). Curiously, the adult entertainment industry and religious and family groups both opposed this move, though for different reasons. The industry fears easier censorship, resents the creation of a virtual red-light district, and does not look forward to the costs of registering new domain names. Religious and family groups resented what they saw as the legitimization of sexual content online.

It’s easy to be cynical about the decision. It is certainly a windfall for ICM Registry, the company that controls names issued with the XXX suffix. As I write this, 267,772 domain names have been “pre-reserved” (whatever that means – I do dislike unnecessary “pre”) and the prices have not yet been announced. And yes, it will make censorship easier – much easier. An employer, parent, country, or ISP can just block all .XXX addresses.

However, if we look at the model of film rating in Canada, clearly identifying pornography as pornography can actually reduce censorship. Calls to censor typically come from people concerned about unintentional exposure of adult material to minors. For example, parents will plead with government authorities to do something after little Jimmy was shocked to the see that is not a site about incubating hatchlings. Porn under the XXX domain will only be seen by those that seek it out.

Legitimizing sexual content is also a good thing. Legitimization leads to regulation and control. Sounds oppressive, but regulation and control of the sex industry reduces the oppression and exploitation of vulnerable individuals. Whereas .COM remains the wild west, the ICM Registry requires that companies using XXX domains be authenticated and meet various standards, including a globally defined prohibition against child pornography:

Registrants in the sTLD may not display any photograph, film, video, picture, or computer or computer-generated image or picture, whether made or produced by electronic, mechanical, or other means, depicting child pornography as defined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Any sites in the sTLD that appear to be in violation of this policy shall be referred to the child safety hotlines in accordance with IFFOR policy.

The XXX domain could become the equivalent of fair trade chocolate for the porn consumer. The morality of porn on the internet is a moot point – it’s there. So why not make sure it is clearly labelled, honestly presented, and a little easier to avoid if you don’t want it.

Censoring Search Engines

Whenever people worry about “bad” content on the internet, however you define bad content, a proposed solution is to require search engines to censor their results. This leads to earnest discussion over whether or not forcing search engines to censor results will solve the problem, and at what cost. For example, could movie piracy be reduced by censoring Google?

This discussion avoids the significant amount of self-censoring most search engines already perform. Some of this is obvious, such as the lack of auto complete for some terms, and some of this is less obvious, such as the algorithms used to rank results. For example, if you search “censorship in canada” on Google, this blog does not appear in the first ten pages. Maybe it turns up later, but who goes past ten pages with search results?  Bing/Yahoo brings this blog up on the second page.  My old friend Alta Vista brings this blog up on the first page. So is Google censoring this blog? Perhaps, but as with any private rating/ranking organization, how it works is a mystery.  At any rate, the issue of whether or not search engines should censor is moot. They do.

If you really want to censor the internet (and there are valid reasons to do that), the solution is the carriers: Bell and Rogers carry most of the Internet traffic in this country, and they are in the technical position to control content. Just because they can does not mean they should determine what is allowed – as with the search engines, allowing private business to make censorship decisions is dangerous – but they are in a position to implement restrictions on what is allowed.

The “Not a Love Story” Myth

One of the persistent myths about the Ontario Film Review Board (OFRB) is that they banned the NFB anti-pornography  documentary “Not a Love Story: A Film About Pornography.” Wikipedia is one of the sources that perpetuates this myth. As with all myths, there is an element of truth, but here’s the whole story.

In the early 1980s, the OFRB did review documentaries. However, the presence of explicit sex did not necessarily lead to a ban, or even cutting. “The Art of Worldly Wisdom” includes 46 seconds of close up explicit sex. It was submitted for review by a group of artists called The Ontario Film and Video Appreciation Society (OFVAS), and passed, uncut, with a Restricted rating (no one under age 18 may view). However, the Board placed limits on when and where the film could be shown.

OFVAS submitted three other films. A second one, “Rameau’s Nephew” also passed with time and place restrictions. The third film, “Amerika,” was banned, and the fourth film was “Not a Love Story.” The Board refused to review “Not a Love Story.”

OFVAS took the OFRB to court, claiming that the Board had violated the new Canadian Constitution.  The Ontario Divisional Court ruled in 1983 that film classification and censorship per se were justifiable under the Constitution. The court also determined that three of the Board’s rulings were valid.

The refusal to rate “Not A Love Story”  was acceptable to the court. The court ruled that the Board did not need to perform hypothetical reviews. The judge stated “the applicants were seeking permission to show a film they did not own and which they had no right to exhibit.” The two approvals with time and place restrictions were ruled a “valid exercise of the Board’s power.”

The ban of “Amerika” was another matter entirely. The court ruled that the Board had no legally defined rights to determine what the public could view.  The Ontario government appealed to the Ontario Supreme Court, but the appeal was dismissed in 1984.   Over the next few years, the Ontario government developed legally defined standards for the operation of the Board.

So, “Not a Love Story” was not banned – it was never reviewed. But it did form part of a court case that led to significant changes at the Board. And while all this was going on in Ontario, “Not a Love Story” was a popular draw at a downtown theatre in Montreal – the hottest show on the strip for folks who missed the point the film was trying to make.

As good a review as any is at Canuxploitation. Of course, the OFRB ban myth is there too…

The Americans are Coming! The Americans are Coming!

The Ontario Government created a Board of Censors in 1911. That same year saw boards established to the west in Manitoba, to the east in Quebec, and to the south in Pennsylvania. Major cities had censors for stage plays, and with purpose built theatres showing ever longer and more depraved movies, something needed to be done about the movie menace.

The original guidelines were short and clear: “no picture of an immoral or obscene nature, or depicting crime or pictures reproducing a prizefight shall be passed”. Only 1 in 4 films passed this high standard. Films that passed could still be cut, or have an offending image such as the American flag, blacked out. The Board Chair, George Armstrong, wrote an open letter to film distributors in a trade magazine, explaining that gratuitous displays of the American flag would not be permitted. When the Great War began in 1914, Canadians were even less tolerant of literal and thematic American flag waving in movies. The United States eventually joined the Allies in 1917, and promptly began producing films which supported the war effort but completely ignored the sacrifices of Canada and other nations.

In 1925, Maclean’s magazine published “What the Censor Saves us From.” The pro-censorship anti-american rant featured a brave reporter venturing across the border to see American films in all their shocking uncensored glory, as well as attacking the American film industry in general for its obsessions with loose morality, depictions of crime, and portrayals of frontier justice. Memories of the American late entry into the war were not forgotten: The reporter criticized American films for freely using Canadian locations yet ignoring Canada’s war efforts.

While censors did their best to protect Canadians from American films, the government regularly considered quotas to ensure proper British films were shown, and the British film industry supported. Of course, theatre owners were opposed. M. J. O’ Brien, of the Ottawa Valley Amusement Company, operating the O’Brien Theatres in Pembroke, Renfrew, Arnprior and Almonte, wrote to the provincial Treasurer in 1931, protesting one of the last airings of a possible quota. He included the text of a telegram he had just sent:

Understand legislation being considered to force theatres of province play twenty per cent British films stop … have tried British pictures our circuit with disastrous results stop pictures are poorly made stop box-office receipts affect tax receipts stop … you may censor what people want to see but you cannot force them to pay to see pictures they don’t like.

Quotas were never introduced, and the tables soon turned. By the late 1930s, the Production Code was in full effect in the United States, and the cleaned up pictures were a relief to Canadian censors. In 1937, Board Chair Omri Silverthorne stated in Variety that American films required fewer cuts due to language than British films. The next two decades were peaceful times for censors.

The King’s F* Speech

I recently attended The King’s Speech with my two oldest sons. This was significant for a number of reasons. The last film we attended together was the muddled Tron: Legacy, and I have fond memories of being up all night with my oldest when he couldn’t sleep, watching Toy Story over and over again. So a bit of a milestone – first grown up film. Or rather, first grown up film with no nudity, no violence, no shoot outs, and no explosions. Just an intelligent story well told, with a modest PG rating here in Ontario.

My oldest actually listens when I talk, and knows that a film rated PG in Ontario is limited to three uses of the dreaded F word (yes, I am aware of the irony of censoring a blog on censorship). So, during a scene where the King launches a string of expletives, exceeding the three count limit, my son leaned over and asked how the film managed the PG rating. Fortunately I was ready with the answer: “…guidelines may be set aside at the Panel’s discretion (where social, historic, and documentary significance warrants).” Had the panel not exercised its discretion, children under 14 would need to be accompanied by an adult to see the film. Not a huge problem, perhaps, and doubtless there will be complaints to the board, but still, kudos to the board for exercising common sense. The rating includes a warning that “Language May Offend.”

The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) originally rated the film as “15,” roughly the same as Ontario’s “14A,” but the distributor appealed. On appeal, the rating was reduced to “12A,” with the warning: “Contains strong language in a speech therapy context.” Children under 12 would need adult accompaniment to see this film in the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, in the United States, the MPAA rated the film “R” for language, meaning anyone under 18 needs adult accompaniment. Quite a difference, and all over the use of one little word.

Do people even care?  Yes, they do. Christian Spotlight on the Movies discusses the swearing, and consequently notes that the film is not recommended for children, even though the reviewer admits that the language is not gratuitous. Commentators on the review also discuss the language.

With all the minor fuss over the language, did it really need to be there? Couldn’t we just gloss over that little incident, for the sake of our children’s precious minds? But if we did that, then we would be guilty of hiding them from the real world, or limiting what adults can view in the name of protecting children. And besides, this language had “social, historic, and documentary significance.” Or did it? Little is known about what Lionel Logue actually said to the King or anyone else. His grandson denies the informality of the relationship as presented in the film. So maybe the swearing was just a cheap laugh….and some free publicity.

Update: The distributors have prepared a version with all that foul language muted, and earned a PG-13 rating from the MPAA.

Movie Theatres are Dangerous, and so is Nationalism – Censorship in 1920

After an early experiment “judging each film on its own merits,” Ontario re-instated formal standards in 1920. Prohibited films included those that were degrading, immoral, improperly suggestive, harmful, and indecent, or that showed foreign flags, cruelty to animals, firearms, violence, crime, arson, insanity, murder, suicide and breaking the law (except in good natured comedies).

Also new for 1920, unaccompanied children were allowed in theatres on Saturdays and holidays between 9 AM and 6 PM, provided a matron was on duty to “supervise the conduct of such children and of adults toward them.” This guideline simultaneously granted some freedom to children, and their parents, and preserved the notion of the theatre as a place dangerous for children.

The notion of theatres as disreputable was persistant. From a 1922 legal textbook on films:
“There is an undoubted effect on standards of conduct resulting from the fact that the audience, often young girls and boys, are packed in narrow seats, close together, in a darkened room. … It is significant that the phrases ‘movie masher’ and ‘knee flirtation’ are coming into use. ” … “No one considering the effect of moving pictures can neglect the possibilities for bad behaviour through the darkness of the hall in which the pictures are shown. Under cover of dimness, evil communications readily pass, and bad habits are taught. Moving picture theatres are favourite places for the teaching of homosexual practices.”

A federal MP claimed that theatres are places where only undesirable people go to hide; and said “pictures that are shown are an invitation to the people of the poorer classes to revolt, and they bring disorder into the country.”  The media did not less this pass, providing some evidence of resistance to this notion of film as a source of evil, foreign influence. A Montreal paper claimed that not all 50,000 people at the theatres every day are hiding from the law. An Ottawa paper went further, stating that “there can only be one censorship – public opinion.  If people object to certain pictures, they will be unprofitable to exhibit.”

In 1921 the various provincial censors held a national meeting in Toronto, to discuss national cooperation. They agreed to move to one set of standards, based on Ontario guidelines, and agreed to discourage profane or suggestive titles. They also agreed to to ban all films made in Germany or that appeared to support German ideals. Finally, they agreed to meet once a year.

Next year in Montreal they agreed to cut the phrase “Passed by the National Board of Review” from American films. Then the censor from Alberta proposed that handling of German pictures be at the discretion of the provinces. At this time, German speaking immigrants were about 10% of the population of Alberta. The end result of the proposal was a decision to continue individual provincial standards, “as each province has a different class of people.” The next known meeting was in 1961.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Lady Chatterley's Lover coverFifty years ago, a British court determined that the novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D. H. Lawrence, was not obscene.  It was originally published in 1928, but could not be published in England (or Canada) until 1960. The story (an affair between a working class man and an upper class woman), some sex scenes, and some specific words were all considered offensive. The trial’s not guilty verdict is generally considered a landmark in increasing freedom for literature.

The Globe and Mail noted the anniversary in an article typical of stories about past censorship. For example, the trial was described as one where “the soldiers of moralism – those who believed some people had a right to tell others what they could read and how to behave – battled a pack of liberals who insisted these were individual decisions.” Naturally we make fun of the lead prosecutor’s opening line: “Is it a book you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?” However, the notion that censorship is required to protect ‘weaker’ individuals has long been a guiding principle of censorship.

At the time, English law described obscene material as that which had a “tendency to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences.” Today, we have age ratings for movies, to protect the weaker minds of children. Women still require special protection too. Canada’s current standards for defining obscene material, the 1992 Butler decision, note that some material may be harmful to women, and when the Ontario government brought in the new Film Classification Act in 2005, it retained the right to ban some adult sex films, at the request of women’s organizations.

The Globe and Mail article notes that book banning continues to occur when readers are offended by something, and claims the “obvious conclusion” of the Lady Chatterly Trial (Regina v. Penguin Book Ltd.) is that “being shocked is not the same as being done harm.” In theory, this is the logic of our current obscenity law. In practice, being shocked may be enough. The Butler decision (Regina v. Butler) reads in part:

material which may be said to exploit sex in a “degrading or dehumanizing” manner will necessarily fail the community standards test [the first and most important of a series of tests to determine criminal obscenity], not because it offends against morals but because it is perceived by public opinion to be harmful to society, particularly women.

I am not suggesting our current obscenity laws are no more valid than the laws of fifty years ago. What I wish to point out is that the Lady Chatterly trial, the Butler trial, and a host of other court cases have lowered the standard of what is considered obscene, and increased artistic freedom. Generally this is considered a good thing, but it follows that what is obscene and therefore illegal today may be considered a quaint hangup in the future, following some future trial. Eventually there would be no limits on what you can say, or show, to anyone. Or is there a line that cannot be crossed? And if there is, what if we have already crossed it?