Small, volcanic, with a proud Viking heritage and run by an openly gay Prime Minister, Iceland is now considering becoming the first democracy in the Western world to try to ban online pornography.

A nationwide consultation has found wide support for the move from police and lawyers working in the field of sexual violence, as well as health and education professionals, according to Halla Gunnarsdottir, adviser to Interior Minister Ogmundur Jonasson.

Ministers are considering the results. "We are a progressive, liberal society when it comes to nudity, to sexual relations, so our approach is not anti-sex but anti-violence. This is about children and gender equality not about limiting free speech," she said.

"Research shows the average age of children who see online porn is 11 in Iceland and we are concerned about that and about the increasing violent nature of what they are exposed to. This is concern coming to us from professionals since mainstream porn has become very brutal.


"There are some who say it can't be done technically - but we want to explore all possibilities and take a political decision on what can be done and how."

Gender equality is highly valued in Iceland and by Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir. In the Global Gender Gap Report 2012, Iceland holds the top spot, closely followed by Finland, Norway and Sweden.

An online ban would complement Iceland's existing law against printing and distributing porn, and follow on from 2010 legislation which closed strip clubs and 2009 prostitution laws that criminalised the customer rather than the sex worker.

Web filters, blocked addresses and making it a crime to use Icelandic credit cards to access pay-per-view pornography, are among the plans being devised by internet and legal experts.

Hildur Fjola Antonsdottir, a gender specialist at Iceland University, said: "This initiative is about narrowing the definition of porn so it does not include all sexually explicit material but rather material that can be described as portraying sexual activity in a violent or hateful way.

"The issue of censorship is indeed a concern and it is important to tread carefully when it comes to possible ways of restricting such material. For example, we have a new political party, the Pirate Party, that is very concerned about all forms of restrictions on the internet. It is very important not to rush into anything but rather have constructive dialogues and try to find the best solutions."

Not all the experts agree with the idea that porn is bad. Studies are often small and it is now impossible to find large numbers of young males who have never watched porn. A 2009 study conducted by Montreal University, found that porn did not change men's perception of women.

Another by Dr Tim Jones, a psychologist at Worcester University in Britain, concluded: "The internet is fuelling more extreme fantasies and the danger is that they could be played out in real life."

There is evidence of a huge rise in internet porn addictions and in the type of porn available becoming more hardcore.

Prostur Jonasson of Iceland's Association of Digital Freedom has branded Ogmundur Jonasson's proposals as unfeasible, saying that ensuring internet service providers block pornography would require content to go through a filter, meaning that someone will have the role of deciding what is okay and what is not.

But Jonasson and his supporters reject claims that restricting access is censorship, and part of the consultation is establishing a legal definition for the pornographic material to be blocked. "It's a myth that there is no proper definition for what is porn, 70 per cent of European countries do have one in law," said Gunnarsdottir.

Other countries will be watching the Icelandic model carefully. There is international concern about the availability and increasing hardcore nature of internet porn. Many big companies now use web filters that successfully restrict access to some sites by their employees.

Many of those opposing the idea of the web porn ban in Iceland are web freedom activists concerned at the idea of any internet censorship and saying it will lead to the kind of state interference in what people can access in countries such as Saudi Arabia, China and Iran.

The chairman of Iceland's International Modern Media Institute is Birgitta Jonsdottir, an Icelandic MP and former WikiLeaks activist, who says the ban will stop companies hosting their business in Iceland. She declared a ban to be "unworkable and unfeasible".

Another WikiLeaks volunteer Smari McCarthy, the executive director of the International Modern Media Initiative, has called the bill "fascist" and the interior minister "insane".

Porn by numbers
40 million regular users of online pornography in the US. Its online porn industry makes US$2.84 billion ($3.35 billion) a year. The industry is thought to be worth double that worldwide.

25 per cent the amount of all search engine requests that are pornographic. "Sex" is the most commonly searched word. Sunday is the peak day for watching online porn.

42 per cent the number of internet users who view pornography. Up to 20 per cent of websites are pornographic.

11 the average age of initial exposure to online porn.

- Observer