Jeremy Hunt is being accused of censorship over his plan to ban teen sexting


LONDON - British health secretary Jeremy Hunt has called for social media companies and messaging apps to ban teen sexting - prompting fury and ridicule from activists and internet users.

"I just ask myself the simple question as to why it is that you can't prevent the texting of sexually explicit images by people under the age of 18," Hunt told a Commons health committee. "Because there is technology that can identify sexually explicit pictures and prevent it being transmitted."

But critics have labelled it "a frightening attack on sexual freedom and free expression," and there are questions around whether it is even technically workable.

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"Morally, this is a huge invasion into the privacy of teenagers," Jerry Barnett, an anti-censorship activist told Business Insider. "Sexting has become a normal part of relationships for young people. Of course, there's a danger of privacy being breached - but this is covered by 'revenge porn' laws and basic education. Teens are technically smart."

Barnett, who has written a book about government attitudes towards pornography ("Porn Panic!"), also points to the fact that "many/most of the people targeted are above the age of consent," which is 16 in Britain.


"All of these issues - sexting, cyber-bullying, sexualisation, etc - seem to have been vastly exaggerated in order to cause moral panic. Where there are problems, the solutions are well known, and the same as in the non-cyber world," he said. "The idea that the state needs to track all teenage communications is completely out of state with the scope of these problems. The underlying trend is a collapse of support for liberal values."

Hunt's remarks were made while discussing suicide prevention and mental health among teens, The Guardian reported - also arguing for tech companies to automatically detect and block cyberbullying. As such, there's no guarantee that the government will try and turn his anti-sexting proposals into law - but they have drawn the mockery of internet users.

"Next week: Jeremy Hunt asks tech firms for intelligent liquor bottles that magically prevent being drunk by minors," joked Twitter user Deacon Blues.

"Sweetie, let's have consensual sex but don't text/sext me about or Jeremy Hunt will be round," was Chloe Combi's sarcastic response.


"The tech solutions hunt is proposing don't exist, but the ones that do will be used to monitor & criminalise children," warned @genderqueer.

jeremy hunt

Carl Court/Getty Images

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt.

From a technical perspective, it's not clear how Hunt's proposals would work. He suggested it as a "lock that parents choose to put on a mobile phone contract." But the vast majority of social networks and messaging apps make no attempt to verify users' agers. (As a teenager, I signed up to Facebook with a fake age, for example.)

As such, the companies would either have to coordinate with mobile phone carriers to check ages, or verify them independently. Either way, it's a huge, technically challenging undertaking, and it seems unlikely many would bother - leaving Hunt's proposals toothless, or forcing the government to take the draconian step of banning non-compliant apps.

The move could even make teens less safe - forcing them off mainstream apps and onto shadier platforms with less robust safety features and at increased risk of hacking.


The UK government is currently trying to push through a strict new internet filtering laws that will block porn sites unless they verify users. But the bill will also ban "non-conventional" pornography completely - a category that includes everything from BDSM to female ejaculation, acts which are perfectly legal to engage in.

Here are Jeremy Hunt's remarks, via The Guardian (emphasis ours):

"I think social media companies need to step up to the plate and show us how they can be the solution to the issue of mental ill health amongst teenagers, and not the cause of the problem ... There is a lot of evidence that the technology industry, if they put their mind to it, can do really smart things.

"For example, I just ask myself the simple question as to why it is that you can't prevent the texting of sexually explicit images by people under the age of 18, if that's a lock that parents choose to put on a mobile phone contract. Because there is technology that can identify sexually explicit pictures and prevent it being transmitted.

"I ask myself why we can't identify cyberbullying when it happens on social media platforms by word pattern recognition, and then prevent it happening. I think there are a lot of things where social media companies could put options in their software that could reduce the risks associated with social media, and I do think that is something which they should actively pursue in a way that hasn't happened to date."

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