British Prime Minister David Cameron recently made an impassioned speech proclaiming the merits of his fierce campaign against Internet pornography. Cameron spoke both as a leader and as a father, and expressed many legitimate concerns regarding the safety of children on the Internet, specifically targeting the appalling amounts of child pornography found in the web’s most haunting corners. In the United Kingdom, where porn sites outnumber social networking in terms of visits, it seems completely understandable that pornography should be discussed at a national level.
While I agree with Cameron’s argument that something must be done to catch pedophiles online and to reduce amounts of child-porn and rape simulation, I will make the case that the way his conservative government is going about solving this issue is in fact not only counterproductive, but is potentially damaging as an act of overstepping the government’s bounds with regard to censorship.
David Cameron’s initiative is centered around an “opt-out” filter that will automatically be installed in every UK household through their ISP. These filters were at first said to apply to all sexually explicit material online, but have since been rumored to apply to violence, drugs, terrorism, suicide, and several other subjects which can today be researched online. While I am in no way arguing for the benefit to society of activities like drugs or violence, I believe that this level of censorship over the Internet is certainly an overstep of the government’s obligations to its people. If truly applied in this manner, a crackdown of Internet content of this scale will most likely infringe upon liberties such as freedom of speech.
For arguments sake, lets stick to this so-called “porn-ban” for now. This mass censorship of the Internet is being pursued in order to reduce child pornography, and to protect Britain’s children from the harmful content of the many dark recesses of the Internet. This cause is by itself very widely supported, as almost everyone agrees that child-porn is vile and should be cracked down on by police. However, mandating a ban on explicit material could cause much harm. Firstly, as the web has so many millions of sites to sift through, the censoring would have to be done by computer. Any computer programmed to find all images containing, say, an exposed human breast will not be able to distinguish between pornography and works of art like Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, or even Queen’s music video for “Bicycle Race”. This also brings into question whether Cameron’s government will attempt to broaden censorship to film, television, and literature as well. Worse still is the potential blocking of educational sites about anatomy or videos aiding women, such as new mothers with breastfeeding tips.
On top of the extremely likely over-censoring of educational or artistic images, there still lie two major questions. Firstly: who decides what is considered explicit enough to be blocked? Secondly: how effect would an “opt-out” system really be? This first question will cause extreme conflict upon the implication of this law, as there is much deliberation about what is considered explicit (sexually or violently). The latter question draws even more criticism of Cameron’s plan, as a matter of fact the head of Child Exploitation and Online Protection himself said that pedophiles would “laugh at” Cameron’s filters. The ability to opt-out of the Internet filter will most likely be chosen by a large number of UK citizens, yet this will still create friction within households and families due to different views of spouses or children. Also, the government will now possess the power to record those who have asked for explicit material to be available to them.
Effectively, this filter scheme will do little to catch the perverts and predators of the Internet, as government scans of websites accessed can and do already occur, so an opt-out mechanism won’t in itself catch many more predators. As a political choice, David Cameron clearly thinks he is acting on behalf of some consensus, as well as adding his own bias as a parent. In conclusion, Cameron’s intent seems to be morally justified, but his plans to carry out that intent will most likely by far less effective than desired, and will infringe upon the freedom of his citizens – in some cases even hindering access to websites with societal benefits, such as health sites or historical works.
– Michael Swistara
Featured photo: jeroen020, Creative Commons, Flickr