Back in April, I ceded the following hostage to fortune:
” […] to accusations of political partiality I will say only this: I’ve only ever blogged under a Labour government.
If a non-Labour government fails to provide just as much blog-fodder, I will supplement that dwindling diet with my hat.”
If this story on news.com.au is to be believed, I think my headwear is safe. The UK government plans to legislate to make households “opt in” to be able to access porn on the internet. ISPs are expected to put some kind of registration, age-related classification and/or filtering mechanisms in place.
If the report is true, it suggests that UK policymakers have managed to come up with something which is at once populist, paternalistic, naive and utterly impractical.
It is populist in the sense that the stated goal of the policy is to safeguard children from inadvertent (or worse, deliberate) exposure to pornographic material. In other words, a goal which has been framed so that to disagree with it is to mark oneself out as a child-abusing pervert. One can instantly understand how this will appeal to a slightly right-of-centre, instinctively conservative but not overly intellectual middle class demographic. It’s not for me to caricature that demographic as “Daily Mail readers”, however apophetically, but if you like tabloid-based stereotypes, that’s one shorthand for it.
The ethical ‘argument’ here is from the same in-bred stock as the pernicious “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” line on personal privacy: “if you’re not ashamed of looking at smut, you shouldn’t be ashamed of having to register to look at smut, therefore we’ll make it illegal not to register”. Once again, the valid distinction between the illegal, the shameful and the merely embarrassing is being elided.
It is paternalistic because it is based on the assumption that the best way to protect children within a household is to cede decision-making to entities outside the household (policymakers and ISPs) about what content is suitable for which audiences, and what should be allowed into the house through the cable modem.
Actually, of course, this simply ensures that the citizens’ ethical faculties atrophy through disuse… because any decisions about appropriate content are ‘someone else’s responsibility’. I’m disappointed, because I thought a decade of New Labour’s Orwellian tendencies had moved (even) the Tories on from that kind of pernicious molly-coddling.
It is naive because there is no precedent to show that the way to enforce any given ethical principle is to impose a technically-mediated solution. 20th century ‘received wisdom’ is that every technological innovation is swiftly turned to pornographic purposes (the internet, the Betamax video cassette, the photograph, the engraving, the fresco…). Never mind Pompeii (Approx. 79AD): the Egyptians were using wall-painting technology to depict sexual acts around 1500 BC; by the 1200s BC they were exploiting the newer medium of papyrus… which was doubtless rather more conveniently portable.
The point is, even as the means to produce and disseminate (sorry) pornography have become more and more technologically mediated, the ability to impose technological restriction on such publication has, again and again, proved futile.
But however long one may care to debate that hypothesis, the fact is that the legislation proposed just won’t achieve the goal being used to justify it. Think of some of the practicalities:
- Are households which contain no children also obliged to register?
- Is registration rendered unnecessary once children in a household achieve majority?
- Who counts as “the householder” in, for example, a university hall of residence?
But more crucially: in so-called “toxic” households, where children are deliberately exposed to pornography by adult perverts… how is the new legislation to have effect? If the householder “opts in”, what protection does the law then provide to any children in that household?
On that basis, there isn’t even any point starting an analysis of the potential downside of such a legislative measure – the proposal is just a stupid idea masquerading as a moral crusade (and with all the success of an unconvincing transvestite).