Using pornography is, I would estimate, a hobby ranging from the occasional to the regular for a little over half the human race. It is also an issue that has caused significant controversy over the limits of free speech, especially in the USA where well-known legal disputes involving figures such as Larry Flynt or Marvin Miller have aroused controversy over what is or isn’t acceptable literature. In July 2013 David Cameron announced plans to put in place an opt-in filter as mandatory for all internet service providers.
The plan came to light after research by MPs Claire Perry and Sarah Teather and subsequent to a report by Professor Reg Bailey. Since its inception the idea has been criticised as ‘implausible’, ‘unrealistic’ or ‘ridiculous’ by various media sources and experts alike. Perhaps this selection of reviews is unfair as it was described as a self-appointed ‘victory for the Daily Mail’. Though this is rather like an endorsement from the BNP, it should give one pause for thought as to whether it is indeed a wise move.
The scheme has already been passed and revoked in Germany while France has passed legislation approving opt-in filters as a proportionate response. In Australia a similar scheme had little success and led to accusations of censorship due to the lack of an appeals process for blocked websites. So far most of the criticism has revolved around the technological issues which do seemingly present large barriers to the filter’s selectivity and efficacy. The relative morality of blanket filtering is only touched on by most sources but is to my mind the major point of discussion.
The scheme aims to protect children, tackle currently illegal pornography and to make more types of pornography illegal in one go. This one-size-fits-all approach should cause alarm bells to ring for a start. Surely the issue of illegal child pornography or nonconsensual violent pornography are very different issues from that of two consenting adults filming a legal sexual activity? It’s as though plans for dealing with chain smoking and sexual assault have been announced: it leaves one a tad confused. The plan to introduce laws against the depiction of rape is a particularly worrying accompaniment. Will this mean the Accused can no longer be viewed legally in the UK? Will Lolita be illegal as it describes paedophilia? Perhaps you think not and I could not comment but whatever the outcome one thing is for certain: Some person or group of persons somewhere will be deciding what is and is not too obscene for you to see. You will be relieved of that responsibility for yourself. I do hope the difference is clear between a film of actual harm being done to a real life child or non-consenting adult and a film in which no one has been harmed and no actual children have been used. In the latter case the only thing we have to go on in making legislation against it is a vague sense of unease that someone somewhere might be getting their jollies off to it. This is an awful reason to make laws and sets a dangerous president. A standard response is that watching these kind of materials may encourage people to act on it. This vague speculation has little to no evidence and in fact many experts support the reverse view that it provides an outlet for individuals who may otherwise act on their urges in a harmful way. The point is we don’t know and even if we did it would be dangerous to pre-emptively restrict the entire populace on the basis of that. Isn’t it a major premise of western society that the rights of the individual may not be sacrificed for the good of the many?
In the case of damage to children I don’t think any reasonable people would disagree that children should be prevented from viewing violent or sexually disturbing material. However rather than introduce blanket legislation treating everyone as children or parents perhaps we could be more specific. Maybe we could appoint some kind of legal guardian to every child. One who has a responsibility and a duty of care to the child and encourage them to secure their internet devices? I’m being facetious but the point stands and we should not encourage laissez-faire parenting by using laws where responsibility and education are required. Apart from the massive technical costs imposed on the smaller internet service providers (ISPs you know those small businesses David Cameron loves to support?) if we acknowledge their legal responsibility then we acknowledge the right of dissatisfied or morally unscrupulous parents to take legal action concerning real or imagined failures on the part of ISPs to protect their children. This in turn would encourage more extreme censorship to pre-empt costly legal disputes. We must be careful what secondary incentives we set in motion.
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However before speculating about the efficacy of a solution we should first firmly define the problem. The proposition that internet pornography is having a detrimental effect on our children and on adults is not some vague, unprovable problem, it is eminently testable. Unfortunately many of those opt-in proponents seem either wilfully or unintentionally to misunderstand the nature of useful evidence. Reg Bailey’s report cites evidence along the lines of ‘Nearly nine out of 10 parents surveyed for this Review agreed with the statement that ‘these days children are under pressure to grow up too quickly’ or ‘one in four parents of 5-15s (26 per cent) are concerned about the content of the websites their child visits.’ Just think of the wasted effort gone into huge psychological and economic studies when all we had to do to work out cause and effect is ask enough people! Why stop there? Huge scientific endeavours like the Large Hadron Collider could be circumnavigated by simply surveying a thousand pubs and seeing what infallible truths come from the clientèle. Bailey gets around this problem firstly by stating that parents are the ultimate experts with their ‘common sense’ to be listened to and secondly that just because there is no evidence of harm doesn’t mean we shouldn’t act as if there isn’t. Well I beg to differ but when it means creating the machinery for blanket censorship on an entire population of computer users a certain level of evidence is required. Before we add ourselves to the list of internet censoring countries alongside liberal paradises such as Iran, China and North Korea some sensible evidence needs to be unearthed. Furthermore I am not confident in the glib, crowd-pleasing comment that all parents are experts. I do not think our average standard of parenting is that high in the UK and by definition a large proportion of parents will be below that average. Nor does the statistic “22 per cent of girls and 26 per cent of boys aged 9 – 16 report having encountered sexual images online or offline in the past 12 months” prove anything more than: Teenage boys like porn more than girls. How shocking! Something must be done!
If internet pornography does encourage sexual deviance and early sexualisation then a reasonable indicator of its harm would be the rates of sexual crime in the UK over the past 25 years or so. If this damaging effect is real we should see hordes of new rapists and child molesters come into existence every year. A quick glance at the crime statistics shows that sexual offence convictions were 62,080 in 2005/2006 and with some variation reached 54,919 in 2010/2011. This includes a small increase in he number of sexual crimes relating to minors, but taken as a proportion of the population this also shows a reduction. This is certainly not conclusive proof but it is the style of evidence that with analysis and refinement will give us the concrete evidence we need. It is highly suspect that proponents of opt-in elect to use anecdotal evidence and surveys rather than analyse hard data. Perhaps they know the outcome will not be in their favour.
The filtering of material fit for distribution is an unsavoury idea as no one really has the wherewithal to accurately predict the effects or otherwise of material and must in all cases refer to personal opinion. We should treat with scepticism those who say they can and want to. I have no doubt many are motivated by a genuine desire to protect others. However I am equally sure that for many advocates of this scheme the underlying motive involves a rather prurient desire to have control over the sexual appetites of others. Christopher Hitchens in his defence of free speech told the story of a group of respectable ladies who came to visit Dr Samuel Johnson after his publication of the first dictionary: “Dr Johnson, we are delighted to find that you have not included any indecent or obscene words in your dictionary.” to which Dr Johnston replied “Ladies, I congratulate you on being able to look them up.”
While the opt-in filters are a small only a small step towards larger government control and censorship let us not be under the illusion that it is not a step in that direction. We should therefore treat this exchange of liberty for security as deeply worrying and in need of firm and as yet invisible evidence. As Benjamin Franklin said in 1737 ‘Freedom of speech is a principal pillar of a free government; when this support is taken away, the constitution of a free society is dissolved, and tyranny is erected on its ruins.’