David Cameron is a pervert. He looks at pornography on his computer. This is an axiomatic statement for several reasons. One; David Cameron is a man, and the Internet from its earliest, post ARPAnet implementation was designed, built, and managed by men with the implied desire of looking at pornography. Two; and this is the important one, pornography is a very loosely-defined concept. Anything can be pornographic, by definition.
Legal definitions of pornography vary widely. The US Congress defined pornography as “any media that causes sexual thoughts”, to which the sainted and wise comedian Bill Hicks responded thus: “pornography doesn’t cause sexual thoughts. Having a dick causes sexual thoughts”. He was right. A full-grown adult male can be aroused by a pair of breasts crudely drawn on a bathroom wall. That makes Sharpies pornographic, right?
It is the function of human beings of a certain age to be titillated and aroused by images, words and deeds. The bill that the British Conservative party is seeking to push through would amount to what liberal writers have called a “perverts charter”: sexual media would be blocked by Internet Service Providers de facto. To see naughty pictures, people would have to tell their ISPs that they wanted to see naughty pictures. Cue much giggling in ISP call centres. Frustrating, yes, embarrassing, yes, but hardly cause for much concern. It’s only civil liberties we are talking about.
This bill is the product of hard-line campaigning by the Daily Mail, a right-wing organ of low standing. The Daily Mail argued that the filth on the net posed a danger to the innocence of children. Little Jim and Sandy, they claimed, are exposed to torrents of smut every time they google something. This is not right. Think of the children.
Therefore, for fear or children seeing porn, porn must go! Justice must be seen to be done.
There are only a couple of things wrong with this argument. While, in theory, the protection of our children’s welfare is important, it comes down to vigilance on the parts of parents. A parental lock on the family computer takes upwards of fifteen seconds to put in place, but that’s a fifteen seconds that many people don’t have, and it requires at least a modicum of thought, which is simply beyond a lot of people. There’s no need for country-wide legislation to make this sort of thing happen. The best comparison I read for this kind of government involvement in people’s lives is like, if some children are afraid of the dark, a law is put in place requiring everyone to have their lights on constantly. It’s not perfect, but it highlights the absurdity of governing.
The other problem comes back to loose definitions. Under the Cameronian casus belli, this website constitutes pornography. I used to use a couple of pictures of large-breasted Venusian “beauty” Jordan Carver as an ironic play on the theory that “tits get hits” (it’s true. My first two months of this policy resulted in a 900% increase in traffic). Also, my front-page banner has a penis in it. Bet you didn’t notice that before, right? Under the bill, that would constitute pornography. I am a smut-peddler. A filth-hound. A shitehawk.
And so, interestingly, is the Daily Mail, owned by KPMG media, which also runs the Mail Online website, one of the largest collections of hissing sibilance and snide Internet trolling this side of YouTube. The Mail Online plays host to celebrity “stories” and “culture pieces”, usually accompanied by pictures of half-naked or bikini’d female starlets, some so crisply-rendered and accurate that you can see the very pores in their cleavage. But this isn’t filth. This is NEWS.
This is the basest hypocrisy, but to be expected. A while ago Stephen Fry wrote a book called The Stars Tennis Balls, a prominent scene of which was a Conservative politician running a talk show called “The Threat Of The Net”, using exactly the kind of rhetoric Conservative politicians use, or indeed always have used. At the climax of the talk show, this MP is revealed to be a paedophile of the vilest sort. The MP, in a fit of remorse, cuts his throat with a kitchen knife. It’s a hell of a book, and prescient of the exact argument we’re having now. It raises an age-old truth, too: our keepers of public decency, our protectors of innocence and our guardians of moral order are often the sickest, most depraved specimens of humanity. Cue much offended shouting by self-styled “moral crusaders”, but think on this: if they weren’t so priapatically obsessed with what other people got up to, would they be the moral crusaders they are? Aren’t gay-bashers, champions of decency and fascists all grown from the same stunted branch? Voyeurs, liars, perverts and hypocrites all.
Of course child pornography and the like must go. It goes against the first line of the liberal code: Primum Non Nocere : first, do no harm. Child pornography, snuff films and abuse should never exist in the first place, but they do, so they should be illegal. The second part of the liberal code of ethics derives from Mill’s On Liberty:
“The maxims are, first, that the individual is not accountable to society for his actions, in so far as these concern the interests of no person but himself. Advice, instruction, persuasion, and avoidance by other people if thought necessary by them for their own good, are the only measures by which society can justifiably express its dislike or disapprobation of his conduct. Secondly, that for such actions as are prejudicial to the interests of others, the individual is accountable, and may be subjected either to social or to legal punishment, if society is of opinion that the one or the other is requisite for its protection.”
The other important argument is this: prohibition, illegality and public control have never, in the history of mankind, ridden us of any particular plague. US prohibition meant people were still drinking, but they were drinking dangerous moonshine instead of Cristal. The war on drugs is being lost, bit by bit: Afghanistan, a country liberated from the Taliban regime and (notionally) under western control, now produces more heroin than any other country in the world. The Pirate Bay is blocked by most ISPs in Britain, but it would take thirty seconds to find one of a dozen proxies that bypass this filter. If you ask nicely, I have a list.
The best you can hope for from legislation, and the usual unintended consequence, is that you drive the dangerous and unspeakable underground. And that’s what will happen with this bill, as with all others: filth will exist. It’s the product of mankind. What you do, when you ban something, is you make it disappear, and for a while people applaud your legislative skill. But it’s always there. It never went away. All of the nasty business on the Internet will exist regardless. The bill will make it harder to get to, but only by way of making it harder to see whose looking at it. A proxy portal can be got for free, or for pennies, and means nobody – not the local constabulary, the NSA, or even GCHQ – can see what you’re looking at it. The law of unintended consequences entails this: the people determined to see nastiness will see it: they’ll just have to be smarter than law-making politicians.
And that’s not difficult.