Internet Pornography and Censorship

The topic of internet censorship simply never goes away. The internet is a clearinghouse for every sort of thought and every kind of content; from classical works of art to child porn, from the earnest offerings of amateur auteurs to racist rants. It’s the ultimate test of our convictions about free speech: how far will we go to defend the right of our fellow netizens to express and enjoy things we find reprehensible?

The latest battle emerging in this endless conflict is the campaign of UK’s governing Conservative Party to block internet pornography from their nation’s users. British residents who wish to access it would be required to contact their ISPs (Internet Service Providers) and formally request porn access. The politicians claim that their purpose is to protect children rather than to create barriers and privacy concerns for adult internet users, but whatever their intent the barriers will be created.

While this present story is about Britain, those of us living in other countries shouldn’t be complacent. This could just as likely happen here, and rest assured that conservative forces in our countries will watch how matters unfold in the UK with interest.

Privacy is often first attacked on a subject like pornography or hate speech in order to put those who wish to defend privacy in the difficult position of having to defend access to things that most people think are of dubious moral value. This isn’t a question of defending porn; it’s a question of defending our right to access legal content in privacy. If we allow our right to access pornography in private to be eroded, we can be certain other matters of privacy will follow.

Recently, I have read books entitled The Islamist: Why I Became an Islamic Fundamentalist, What I Saw Inside, and Why I Left by Mohammed Mahbub “Ed” Hussain and Five Years of My Life: An Innocent Man in Guantanamo by Murat Kurnaz. On the suggestion of Don Power (@donpower), I have begun reading The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein (@NaomiAKlein). I’ve also read the novels A Thousand Splendid Suns and The Kite Runner by Afghan author Khaled Hosseini. I’m not ashamed of this reading list; I’m proud of it. However, that doesn’t mean the books and internet sites that I read should be stored on a list at my ISP and made accessible to governments and law enforcement.

What could a paranoid person draw from such a reading list? Clearly, there is an interest in fundamentalist Islam and the motivations of Islamists (The Islamist). There’s also a deep-seated suspicion of the United States and its War on Terror and doubt over the justice of its acts (Five Years of my Life). Doubts clearly exist around the motivations of the powerful and monied interests in the US (The Shock Doctrine). Finally, there is also clearly an interest in understanding the perspectives of Afghans through their stories and authors (the works of Hosseini). Am I radical? Do I bear watching? Should my privacy be further violated to see what other flags we might be able to find?

Some readers may ask themselves how my publishing the above two paragraphs is consistent with my desire for privacy. I’m both a fierce advocate of my personal privacy and also extremely open. I explain this apparent dichotomy by saying that I prefer to explain myself to whom I want and in the words I want. I don’t want lists of my activities or reading taken out of context and used to harass me. If I choose to publish a selection of my reading, that’s my choice and consistent with my ideal of privacy because the choice was my own.

It’s difficult to feel confident that the initiative will stop at pornography. Writing about the issue for Mashable, Charlie White asks where the line will be drawn. “Will instructional videos such as breast-feeding demonstrations be considered porn?” White asks. This is one significant issue for UK politicians to answer, but it’s not the only one. Were this initiative to succeed, would the method be turned against other content we might not wish children to access? Will British citizens have to register as consumers of religious or atheist content, content about world conflicts and terrorism, and content about racial conflicts, in addition to pornography?

What are the implications of this initiative? A database of citizens who access certain types of internet content – and we needn’t stop with pornography – could form a very interesting source of information about internet users for governments and law enforcement agencies to mine in profiling citizens as possible threats to national security. ISPs have also expressed the initiative would be expensive. Will British internet users be called on to pay higher fees? It seems unlikely the government will subsidize the programme and the necessary technology to filter internet content.

And what about pornography? Pornography is a major use of the internet. Odds are if you’re here on the internet reading this, you’ve probably consumed internet porn at some time or other. So have I – even though this blog is sure to be read by past and potential clients – I refuse to be a hypocrite. Let’s face it, virtually all of us have looked at porn, and that includes internet porn.

My defence of our right to internet porn should not be construed as a defence of porn itself. There are a lot of issues we need to grapple with around pornography, especially hardcore porn. First and foremost is the objectification, the systematic and total dehumanization of sex in porn. Second, we need to acknowledge there really is no substantial difference between hardcore porn and prostitution. Pornstars are paid to engage in sexual acts. I’ve often wondered how we can ignore this being legal while we criminalize prostitution. Third, we need to acknowledge that some pornstars are so broken by past and present trauma that they turn to numbing drugs in order to complete performances. Being objectified and used is not likely much fun or lacking in emotional harm.

Are these things I would want my children to access? Of course not. There are a lot of things I wouldn’t want them exposed to. However, they will be exposed to these things. Children are curious and clever. They need only gain access to a computer that is approved for such content to bypass the proposed filter, and there will be many of those. We may also see a return to the home video and other markets for those too embarrassed to request porn access from ISPs, and children can and will get into those things.

Children need guidance. They need the experienced perspectives of caring parents to put things they can’t otherwise into perspective. At some point, they need to learn about pornography. They need the guidance of loving parents to understand that it doesn’t represent a healthy or whole view of human sexuality. If we believe an alternative to that difficult parenting work is to cover our eyes and pretend they won’t see it, we are doing them a deep disservice. This doesn’t end at porn, it includes hate speech and much other internet content.

Let’s stop talking about censoring the internet. It’s lazy, misguided, and impractical. Let’s stop using the protection of our children as a manipulative and insincere argument for censorship. Children will get into the things we wish to keep from them, and their innocence is temporary. We need to be pro-active and responsible parents who teach them about the world as it is and how we think it ought to be. We need to present the good and the bad along with perspectives they don’t have the experience and knowledge to form for themselves. We can do all of this without undermining freedom or privacy. Let’s not kid ourselves, once freedom or privacy is given up, it’s extremely hard to recover.

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About Fergus

Fergus likes to invent cool titles for himself, such as “Communications Specialist” or “Internet Architect”. What it really comes down to is that Fergus’s passion is internet communication. He believes that helping people communicate more effectively makes the world a better place. To this end, he seeks opportunities to help individuals, businesses, and non-profits to communicate their ideas, products, and services beautifully. Some examples of the types of work Fergus undertakes: web design, graphic design, programming, and search-engine optimization. Fergus also enjoys consulting with people about their existing web sites and strategies as well as their plans. Fergus doesn’t enjoy writing about himself in the third-person quite as much, but sometimes it seems a necessary evil.
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