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Iceland porn ban: Can a wired country go porn-free?

Iceland's proposed ban on pornography has sparked a debate about the feasibility of such a ban, as well as how a porn ban fits the ideals of the liberal island nation.

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Critics say such filters are flawed and often scoop up innocent sites in their net – as when Denmark's child pornography filter briefly blocked access to Google and Facebook last year because of a glitch.

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On the streets of Iceland's capital, Reykjavik, there was some support for a porn ban, but also skepticism about how it would work.

"I think this is a good idea, but I think it might be problematic to implement this," said shop assistant Ragnheidur Arnarsdottir. "It is difficult to fight technology."

Iceland's moves are being closely watched. It may be a tiny country of only 320,000 people, but its economic and social experiments – like its active volcanoes – often have international impact.

For centuries economically dependent on fishing, Iceland transformed itself in the early 21st century into a pioneer of aggressive credit-driven banking. Then in 2008, the country's debt-burdened banks all collapsed, making Iceland the first and most dramatic casualty of the global financial crisis, and leaving a string of failed businesses around the world.

The economy is now bouncing back, aided by Iceland's status as one of the world's best connected countries, with one of the highest levels of Internet use on the planet. Recent initiatives to boost growth include plans to make Iceland a global center of media and technology freedom – a status that advocates like McCarthy fear could be threatened by an online porn ban.

Anti-porn activists, however, are hailing Iceland as a pioneer. It is certainly not afraid to go its own way. Although the country has largely liberal Scandinavian values, it broke with most of Europe in 2010 by banning strip clubs.

"This is a country with courage," said Gail Dines, a professor of sociology and women's studies at Wheelock College in Boston and author of the book "Pornland."

"Iceland is going to be the first country with the guts to stand up to these predatory bullies from L.A. (in the porn industry)," she said. "It is going to take one country to show that this is possible."

But opponents say the project is both misguided and doomed.

"I can say with absolute certainty that this will not happen, this state filter," said Icelandic parliamentarian Birgitta Jonsdottir, a prominent advocate of online freedom.

She is confident those drafting the anti-porn measures will see the error of their ways. They may also run out of time – Iceland is due to hold parliamentary elections in April, and the unpopular coalition government could be thrown out.

Jonsdottir said the key to protecting children and others from hardcore harm is for citizens to better inform themselves about the Internet and how it works.

"People just have to make themselves a bit more knowledgeable about what their kids are up to, and face reality," she said.

Gunnarsdottir, the political adviser backing the ban, just hopes the emotional debate around the issue will cool down.

"I think we should be able to discuss the Internet with more depth, without just shouting censorship on the one hand and laissez faire on the other hand," she said.

"Is it freedom of speech to be able to reach children with very hardcore, brutal material? Is that the freedom of speech we want to protect?"

Jill Lawless reported from London. She can be reached at http://Twitter.com/JillLawless

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