So, David Cameron is keen to crack down on access to online pornography. Some people are thrilled about this. Others, not so much. Here is some detail from the previous link:
“Every household in Britain connected to the Internet will be obliged to declare whether they want to maintain access to online pornography, David Cameron will announce on Monday.
In the most dramatic step by the government to crack down on the “corroding” influence of pornography on childhood, the prime minister will say that all internet users will be contacted by their service providers and given an “unavoidable choice” on whether to use filters.”
“He will say:
* The possession of “extreme pornography”, which includes scenes of simulated rape is to be outlawed.
* The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) is to draw up a blacklist of “abhorrent” internet search terms to identify and prevent paedophiles searching for illegal material.
* All police forces will work with a single secure database of illegal images of children to help “close the net on paedophiles”.”
I’m sure the net on paedophiles is one we’d all like to close, and even though I suspect only the thickest of them use Twitter or insecure websites readily accessible via Google to circulate such material, it’s difficult to object. Simulated rape seems slightly trickier to me. While I wouldn’t like to meet an individual who finds such material sexually arousing, the emphasis should surely rest on simulated. If no laws are broken in the production of certain material, I’m unsure why laws should have been broken by viewing it. In addition, it feels like a very blurry definition. I don’t want to imagine somebody jerking off to rape porn, but I also think Irreversible is a masterpiece – albeit distressing and deeply upsetting. It contains an unbearable 9 minute rape scene. If you were so inclined, I suppose you could jerk off to that. Should that be outlawed?
On the subject of filters, I also have a heavy heart. I’ve had mobile phone contracts with cack-handed versions of this applied (and really, could any filter of the web not be cack-handed, by definition?) and it was intensely annoying. I presume it limited me from accessing porn while I was out and about. It also limited me from accessing several websites that have nothing to do with porn, but which had, for some vague reason, been classified as objectionable. I’d turn down universal filters on those grounds alone. I don’t want to be prevented from visiting a site because it has adult content, because, you know, I am an adult.
Deborah Orr has an interesting article in the Guardian today, basically saying that the filters are no big deal, at least theoretically, and there’s a lot in the article that’s worth chewing over. Certainly, it’s not a hugely prominent free speech issue, simply because you can opt in. Rape pornography aside (and, depending on how it’s implemented, I’m not sure that’s a hill many are willing to die on), nothing is being banned outright. But I still have reservations. From Orr’s article:
“In other words, the current situation is awkward for some people who don’t want a portal to porn in the sitting room, while the proposed one would be awkward for some of those who do.
Why should the convenience of the second group be so much more important than the convenience of the first? The implication is that it’s normal to want access to porn, and abnormal not to want access to porn. Yet it’s clear from much of the criticism that using porn is the sort of normality that people have some reservations about sharing with others, even the people most close to them. Why would someone hide a healthy fondness for porn from their sexual partner? The tenor of this whole debate suggests that somehow it’s unfair to put people in a situation where they’re obliged to be an active participant in their quest for porn, when the responsibility for policing porn in the home is currently resting comfortably in the hands of those who would prefer never to think about it at all.”
This argument seems to pivot on the idea that it’s okay to restrict things if there’s no obvious reason to allow them. That is not how I would personally approach things. Explicit hardcore porn is not beamed directly into your home. If somebody chooses to search for it, then I see no prima facie reason – legality of material aside – why they should not be able to find it. Any argument in support of filters should be addressing why that should not be the case. Saying “I don’t want it” is not enough, because you can – you know – opt out.
In short: to ban or limit access to something, you require a reason for doing so; the default state should be unfettered access, and we work from there. Being able to look at something is not the same thing as being able to look at something if you say please, and we lose that distinction to our disadvantage – somewhere down the line, if not now. This is not trivial; it’s important.
The question then becomes: is it worth doing? Is it justifiable? On the face of it, restricting access to online pornography to save the children seems fairly admirable – simply on the basis that, upon being asked “do you want kids to be able to look at porn?” most people would say “No.” And yet both terms cover a lot of ground. While the internet has allowed easy access to the whole spectrum of pornography, it’s hardly a monolith. Yes, you can watch obnoxiously orchestrated and deeply unpleasant hardcore videos – but you can also watch amateur clips of fairly normal people having loving and fairly naturalistic sex. It doesn’t make sense to me to use the same term for both. As a teenager, I saw a fair bit of porn – most of it on grainy VHS, or in magazines found, bizarrely, abandoned and stuffed into tree trunks in woods – and yet somehow I managed to enter my late teens and early twenties without absurd expectations of what women were like, or how to treat them.
This is not to say that attitudes can’t be problematic. But I do think Orr brushes too briefly over things like Page 3, or – say – the Mail’s infamous sidebar of shame, which will not be prohibited by the filters. These things are more subtle and more pernicious, and I’d imagine that the existence of these, along with countless other examples, is more damaging overall to the collective consciousness than the ability to watch a couple (or whatever) of people shagging, however enthusiastically or unrealistically.
Of course, Cameron is never going to restrict access to those things, and never could. I’d suggest these current plans are similarly unworkable and ridiculous, if on a slightly different scale, and I’d be amazed if they are actually implemented. They strike me as gesture politics at best: a simple thing to say to appease people, but which can easily be forgotten and abandoned down the line. Or, to put it another way, a bit of momentary crowd-pleasing headline-grabbing to distract everyone from the people who are really getting fucked.