UK Government Proposes Legislation to Block Adult Content

The UK government is discussing legislation that would require all internet service providers to block websites with “adult content”, specifically those without age verification.


When asked if five dollar pornography on the street corner was too high a price to pay for free speech The West Wing’s President Bartlet, as played by Martin Sheen, replied, “No... On the other hand, I think that five dollars is too high a price to pay for pornography”.

The notion of how much access to pornography people should be allowed to have is a moral question that has been a bother for ages. Today we have, perhaps, the simplest and most extensive access to it we have ever had. The supply of free pornography on the internet is so great that even Playboy magazine has abandoned showing frontal nudity, on the grounds that it cannot compete in the new market.

In response to the unfiltered access to such media online, the government of the United Kingdom has proposed legislation which would require all internet service providers to block websites with “adult content”, specifically those without age verification. The proposal will be added to the upcoming Digital Economy Bill 2016-17.

While the manner of how the internet will be regulated exactly if the bill is passed and how it will be applied in law is new and specific to this case, the question of the morality of pornography and the attempt to control its distribution is nothing new.

In the United States, the Comstock laws prevented the mailing of pornography, contraceptives, personal letters of a sexual nature, or any information relating to said items via the postal system. These laws, passed in 1873, remained in effect until 1957. The law was so broadly defined that anatomy textbooks were occasionally unable to be sent by mail. For his part, Mr. Anthony Comstock, for whom the laws were named, was a radical moral activist both loved and loathed. He was later lampooned in BioShock Infinite, with the puritanical villain taking his name.

Ethically, there are many ways to view the question of the availability of pornography in society. For some it is an issue of temperance; others see it as an issue of purity. There are still others who find it objectionable, but see the idea of the state interfering with access to be anathema. In this case, the issue is tied to “how free is too free” speech, as the stated goal is to make it more difficult for children to access such images.

While this bill is geared towards fixing a hole in British internet law. The wording of it has a few proponents of free speech alarmed. In particular, they are concerned that the wording of the bill and its use of the term “adult content is too vague and could lead to censorship beyond that of the original intention.

Jim Killock, Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, said about the bill:

“This could lead to tens of thousands of websites being blocked, despite their content being perfectly legal. In no way should this proposal be legislated for in this bill. There has been no thought or consultation, and the government has not even begun to define how blocking might be attempted. They have no idea if it would work well or badly, or whether there is serious enough harm to justify such a massive restriction on UK adults access to legal material.”

On the other hand. Karen Bradley, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport claimed in response:

“The Government is committed to keeping children safe from harmful pornographic content online and that is exactly what we are doing. Only adults should be allowed to view such content and we have appointed a regulator, BBFC, to make sure the right age checks are in place to make that happen. If sites refuse to comply, they should be blocked.” 

At the time of writing, the bill is still being discussed. The question of if it passes or not is still up in the air. The actual ability of the British government to regulate such traffic remains in question, as a simple image search can produce some remarkably risqué images if requested. In any case, the question of free speech vs public morality rages on, and will continue to do so.

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Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
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  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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