The debate is between those stuck in the 1960s and those of us with a modern view of rights
Earlier this week, the FBI released the results of a nationwide operation against child sex traffickers. After identifying children who were being sold for sex on the internet, in casinos, on the streets and at truck stops, they arrested 642 people and rescued 47 victims. The operation was carried out over three days last week, just as British journalists, academics and cheerleaders for legalised prostitution were arguing that sex trafficking in this country is mostly a myth.
"Inquiry fails to find single trafficker who forced anybody into prostitution," declared one headline. I wondered where it looked, given that British prisons are now home to such notorious traffickers as Luan Plakici and Viktoras Larcenko. In the debate that followed, I was struck by the nasty personal tone of much of the rhetoric, which dismissed campaigners against sex trafficking as evangelical Christians and ill-intentioned feminists. There was little mention of the international context – mainly, I suspect, because so many unimpeachable organisations are on the other side of the argument.
Since 2003, the FBI has rescued 886 child victims of sex traffickers and secured 510 convictions. According to the Bureau of Justice Assistance, the US is a trafficking destination for victims from other countries but "many US citizens are trafficked, usually run-away teenage girls, who are preyed on by pimps and trafficked for prostitution". Task forces identified 3,336 potential victims of human trafficking (for domestic labour as well as prostitution) by June last year.
Hillary Clinton launched the State Department annual report on human trafficking this year, and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) produced its own assessment. It said that more than 21,400 victims were identified in 111 countries in 2006, but the number of convictions for trafficking was not proportionate to the extent of the problem. Two out of five countries covered by the report had not recorded a single conviction, leading UNODC's executive director, Antonio Maria Costa, to a blunt conclusion: "Either they are blind to the problem, or they are ill-equipped to deal with it."
According to the UK Human Trafficking Centre, there were 105 convictions for trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation between 1 May 2004 (when the Sexual Offences Act 2003 came into force) and 26 March 2009. Low conviction figures are being used to bolster claims that the extent of sex trafficking in the UK has been hugely exaggerated, and to discredit organisations and individuals who believe that conviction rates do not show the full picture. That's certainly the view of the Poppy Project, which runs a refuge for trafficking victims; it has received more than 1,300 referrals of women from 80 countries since 2003.
The Commons Home Affairs Committee has identified numerous reasons for the low conviction rate, including the brutality of traffickers – many victims are too frightened to testify – and the difficulty of proving trafficking offences; the authorities sometimes press alternative charges such as money laundering or false documentation. The MPs argue that "the comparatively low rate of prosecutions for trafficking ... adds to the confusion about the incidence of trafficking" and "may lead some authorities to underestimate the severity of the problem".
Here is an example of how confusion arises. Three years ago, West Midlands police trumpeted the success of an operation against alleged sex-traffickers in Birmingham, even taking Sky TV with them to film it; a police spokesman said the women had been tricked into the sex industry and were locked into a massage parlour called Cuddles each evening. Thirteen women who had EU passports were held in cells for two nights before being released; the remaining six – from Albania, Moldova, Romania and Thailand, all well-known countries of origin for trafficking – were taken to Yarl's Wood detention centre. Lawyers managed to stay their deportation and a representative of the Poppy Project was allowed to meet four of the women. Finally, 12 days after the raid, two were identified as sex-trafficking victims.
Just about everything went wrong with this operation, which is hardly surprising given that it was conducted under intense media scrutiny. The Poppy Project was not told about the raid in advance and the women were not interviewed in compliance with guidance on vulnerable or intimidated witnesses. A Birmingham man, Carl Pritchett, was jailed for two years for running a brothel and in August this year he was ordered to pay back £2m under the Proceeds of Crime Act, but specific charges of sex trafficking were never brought. The Government has now ratified the Council of Europe convention which gives suspected trafficking victims more rights, but existing figures for convictions cover a period when many potential witnesses were quickly deported.
Of course, this isn't really an argument about statistics. It's about a clause in the Policing and Crime Bill, currently being considered by the House of Lords, which would make it an offence to buy sex from anyone who is controlled for gain. Campaigners for legalised prostitution fear the testimonies of trafficking victims because they explode the notion that selling sex is a pleasant job, made risky only by its illegal status. When I hear about the "dignified living conditions" of women in the sex industry, I know the argument is more to do with ideology than figures. It's a clash between people clinging to antiquated ideas from the 1960s – that men are entitled to sex whenever they want it – and those of us with a modern view of the rights of women and children.
The vilification we're experiencing is a tactic which the great anti-slavery campaigner, William Wilberforce, would have recognised. His critics claimed on different occasions (depending on the sympathies of their audience) that slavery was a necessary evil, slaves were not badly treated and abolitionists were just a bunch of religious bigots: "pious divines, tender-hearted poetesses, and short-sighted politicians" according to one polemic published in 1789. Three years later, a pamphlet claimed that each slave family had "a snug little house and garden, and plenty of pigs and poultry". Wilberforce didn't believe a word of it. And when I'm told sex trafficking isn't really a problem in this country, neither do I.
Photo: AP - SHEPARD FAIREY
We take a look at 10, with the most well-known and widely used towards the top and some of the lesser lights lower down. If you know any more, let us know below.
Equally, of course, if you have formulated one yourself, do likewise – but you might want to include your real name, not just a web pseudonym. Otherwise it will be known forever as Gherkin555’s Law, or whatever, and you will miss your shot at posterity.
We should state that we are not endorsing these laws or the views they imply, merely reporting them.
1. Godwin’s Law
The most famous of all the internet laws, formed by Mike Godwin in 1990. As originally stated, it said: "As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1." It has now been expanded to include all web discussions.
It is closely related to the logical fallacy “reductio ad Hitlerum”, which says “Hitler (or the Nazis) liked X, so X is bad”, frequently used to denigrate vegetarians and atheists.
Common Godwin's Law appearances include describing women's rights campaigners as “feminazis”, comparing the former US President George W Bush to Hitler, or saying Barack Obama's proposed healthcare reforms are the new Holocaust.
In its broader sense it can be used to describe any situation where a poster loses all sense of proportion, for example describing New Labour as “Zanu-Labour” after Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwean political party Zanu-PF.
As well as the descriptive form, it can be used prescriptively: so if any poster does mention the Nazis in a discussion thread, Godwin’s Law can be invoked, they instantly lose the argument and the thread can be ended.
If this is done deliberately to end the argument, however, it does not apply. This codicil is known as “Quirk’s Exception”.
2. Poe’s Law
Not to be confused with the law of poetry enshrined by Edgar Allen Poe, the internet Poe’s Law states: “Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humour, it is impossible to create a parody of fundamentalism that someone won't mistake for the real thing.”
It was originally formulated by Nathan Poe in 2005 during a debate on christianforums.com about evolution, and referred to creationism rather than all fundamentalism, but has since been expanded.
Poe’s Law also has an inverse meaning, stating that non-fundamentalists will often mistake sincere expressions of fundamentalist beliefs for parody.
Examples abound – one particularly difficult-to-judge site claims that “Heliocentrism [the belief that the Earth orbits the Sun, rather than the other way around] is an Atheist Doctrine”.
One that must, surely, be a parody is sexinchrist.com (WARNING: link contains adult material), a site that offers Christians advice on the rights and wrongs of such activities as threesomes and pubic shaving, among much more.
However, it is hard to be entirely certain, given the existence of christiannymphos.org (WARNING: link contains adult material), an apparently entirely serious site.
Here is an example of a parody site that embodies both Godwin's and Poe's Laws.
3. Rule 34
States: “If it exists, there is porn of it.” See also Rule 35: “If no such porn exists, it will be made.” Generally held to refer to fictional characters and cartoons, although some formulations insist there are "no exceptions" even for abstract ideas like non-Euclidean geometry, or puzzlement.
For obvious reasons it is not appropriate for lengthy discussion in a family newspaper, but the recent appearance of Marge Simpson on the cover of Playboy, pictured above, was a (very mild) example of the law in action, and going mainstream.
The spread of fanfic, slash fiction and hentai around the internet, as well as the rise of furries, are making this law more and more accurate every day.
The other 33 rules change frequently, except one and two, which are “Do not talk about /b/” and “Do NOT talk about /b/”, respectively, referring to a message board on the 4chan.org website.
4. Skitt’s Law
Expressed as "any post correcting an error in another post will contain at least one error itself" or "the likelihood of an error in a post is directly proportional to the embarrassment it will cause the poster."
It is an online version of the proofreading truism Muphry’s Law, also known as Hartman's Law of Prescriptivist Retaliation: "any article or statement about correct grammar, punctuation, or spelling is bound to contain at least one eror".
Language Log quotes the following example, from Paul Ordoveza’s How Now, Brownpau? blog:
"For too long, we linguistic pedants have cringed, watching this phrase used, misused, and abused, again, and again, and again. 'This begs the question...' [we hear], and we must brace ourselves as the ignoramii of modern society literally ask a question after the phrase."
While Mr Ordoveza’s point is entirely valid (“begging the question” is a logical fallacy, meaning to "beggar the question", or assume your conclusion in your premise – not to raise the question), the plural of ignoramus is ignoramuses.
It was apparently first stated by G Bryan Lord, referring to a user named Skitt, on Usenet in 1998.
5. Scopie’s Law
States: “In any discussion involving science or medicine, citing Whale.to as a credible source loses the argument immediately, and gets you laughed out of the room.” First formulated by Rich Scopie on the badscience.net forum.
This law makes little sense without a background knowledge of Whale.to, a conspiracy theory site which includes such items as the complete text of the anti-Semitic hoax Protocols of the Elders of Zion, as well as claims that Aids is caused by vaccination programmes, and that Auschwitz never happened.
It has been expanded by posters on rationalwiki.com to include any use of Answers in Genesis in an argument about creationism and evolution.
6. Danth’s Law (also known as Parker’s Law)
States: “If you have to insist that you've won an internet argument, you've probably lost badly.” Named after a user on the role-playing gamers’ forum RPG.net.
Danth’s Law was most famously declared in “The Lenski Affair”, between microbiologist Richard Lenski and the editor of Conservapedia.com, Andrew Schlafly, who cast doubt upon Prof Lenski’s elegant experimental demonstration of evolution.
After what is widely held to be one of the greatest and most comprehensive put-downs in scientific argument from Prof Lenski, Mr Schlafly declared himself the winner.
7. Pommer’s Law
Proposed by Rob Pommer on rationalwiki.com in 2007, this states: “A person's mind can be changed by reading information on the internet. The nature of this change will be from having no opinion to having a wrong opinion.”
8. DeMyer's Laws
Named for Ken DeMyer, a moderator on Conservapedia.com. There are four: the Zeroth, First, Second and Third Laws.
The Second Law states: “Anyone who posts an argument on the internet which is largely quotations can be very safely ignored, and is deemed to have lost the argument before it has begun.”
The Zeroth, First and Third Laws cannot be very generally applied and will be glossed over here.
9. Cohen’s Law
Proposed by Brian Cohen in 2007, states that: “Whoever resorts to the argument that ‘whoever resorts to the argument that... …has automatically lost the debate’ has automatically lost the debate.”
Has also been stated in the much longer version, "Whoever resorts to the argument that 'whoever resorts to the argument that... 'whoever resorts to the argument that... 'whoever resorts to the argument that... 'whoever resorts to the argument that ... 'whoever resorts to the argument that... ...has automatically lost the debate' ...has automatically lost the debate' ...has automatically lost the debate' ...has automatically lost the debate' ...has automatically lost the debate' has automatically lost the debate."
10. The Law of Exclamation
First recorded in an article by Lori Robertson at FactCheck.org in 2008, this states: "The more exclamation points used in an email (or other posting), the more likely it is a complete lie. This is also true for excessive capital letters."
It is reminiscent of the claim in Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels that the more exclamation marks someone uses in writing, the more likely they are to be mentally unbalanced.
According to Pratchett, five exclamation marks is an indicator of "someone who wears their underwear on the outside".