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Britain moves against online porn, raising concerns about free speech

LONDON – In a land whose uptight reputation is belied by its wicked ways, the Conservative-led British government is in the midst of a crusade to enact some of the strictest curbs on pornography in the Western world.

The campaign follows the rape and murder of two young girls by men seemingly addicted to online pornography. One of the children, 5-year-old April Jones, was buried Thursday after a nationally televised funeral.

Just as in the United States, child pornography is already illegal here. But Prime Minister David Cameron, citing widely accessible brands of legal pornography for “corrupting childhood” and “normalizing sexual violence against women,” has launched an all-out assault that opponents say is pitting state-sponsored morality against Internet freedom in one of the planet’s most open societies.

Family-friendly filters will soon be automatically installed when most new subscribers sign up for Internet service, with customers wishing to view pornography needing to make a conscious choice to turn them off.

Before the end of next year, most of the 21 million wired households in Britain will also be placed in the awkward position of having to declare whether they want to keep access to legal online pornography or have it blocked by their telecommunications providers.

Cameron is also demanding that search engines such as Google and Yahoo create a “blacklist” of terms relating to child pornography that, when strung together, come back with no hits. His government is additionally moving to ban the possession of a broader range of images, including not only child pornography but also images depicting consenting adults engaged in violent acts such as simulated rape.

“We now have the ambition to make Britain the most family-friendly democracy in the world,” said Claire Perry, a member of Parliament from Cameron’s Conservative Party and his point person in the anti-pornography push.

Free-speech advocates, however, see a slippery slope – one that could eventually rob Britain of the moral authority to denounce government-imposed Internet filtration in countries such as China. Perhaps more than any other Western nation, critics say, Britain has become a test case for how and whether to more deeply police Internet images and social media in free societies.

Several Western nations already have limited policing of the Internet. Germany has long banned online material that, for instance, denies the Holocaust.

But Britain is putting in place some policies – and looking at others – that could result in a broader filtration of material from public view. For instance, after a British soldier was killed in a gruesome knife attack on a London street, allegedly by Islamist extremists, Britain’s Home Office created a task force to look at whether the government should do more to compel search engines to block extremist material – religious or political – that incites violence and indoctrinates youth.

Next month, executives from Google, Facebook, Twitter and other technology companies will be asked to appear at a parliamentary hearing in London on Internet security and safety – with British lawmakers studying the possibility of fresh guidelines or new legislation to combat everything from cyber-bullying to the ability of children to view explicit material online.

Critics say that by moving to expand the definition of illegal pornographic images to include so-called “rape porn,” the government will be creating a subjective system where empowered “censors” become the arbitrators of good taste.