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Cameron’s Porn Power Grab
There is no need for the state to further regulate Internet smut.


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Charles C. W. Cooke

I have long observed that if a political-advocacy group boasts the word “mothers” prominently in either its name or its rhetoric, then it is almost certainly seeking to abridge your liberty. Apparently this rule now goes for fathers, too. “I feel profoundly,” British prime minister David Cameron announced this week, “as a politician, and as a father, that the time for action has come.” He continued on a tack that those of us who remain sedulously suspicious of politicians’ motives will find both familiar and distasteful: “This is,” he claimed, “quite simply, about how we protect our children and their innocence.” Isn’t everything these days?

In his announcement, the prime minister lamented that the ubiquity of pornography on the Internet is “corroding” Britain’s morality. In response, he proposed to do what British politicians always propose be done when they sense a threat to the righteous: Censor.

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Merriam-Webster defines a “censor” as “an official who examines materials (such as publications or films) for objectionable matter.” Under new rules, scores of such people will be appointed and charged with “blacklisting” from Internet search engines such as Google, Bing, and Yahoo any term that the government terms “horrific”; with ensuring that all Internet service providers (ISPs) block access to state-defined pornographic content unless the account holder specifically chooses to opt in; and with prosecuting anyone for making or sharing pornography depicting rape or other “extreme” behavior.

Perhaps because he was nervous of being accused of heavy-handedness, Cameron stressed initially that he wanted technology firms to adopt his rules voluntarily. Nevertheless, he quickly made himself clear, noting that he might have to “force action” if they do not acquiesce. As the BBC’s Ross Hawkins noted, the prime minister thus “hinted that if search engines like Google didn’t agree to a blacklist of search terms, he would legislate.”

Hawkins drily characterized Cameron’s approach as an attempt to “supplement the art of persuasion with the smack of firm government.” Quite so. But one negates the other. If one is “volunteering” because one has been threatened that otherwise one will be compelled by force, then one is not volunteering at all. Politicians who argue that private companies are “not doing enough to take responsibility” and failing to live up to their “moral duty” may couch their compulsion in whatever words they like. But the fact remains that the state’s congratulating you for following its instructions before it had to get violent is akin to a robber’s claiming that you gave over your wallet willingly because he was not forced to shoot you.

Still, the prime minister is in a strong position with the country at large, and he knows it. In the Spectator, Nick Cohen contends that he

cannot see many MPs standing up in Parliament and saying “I watch rape porn and it has never done me any harm.” In truth, I can’t imagine any man saying that: it’s not the kind of vice men admit to. Cameron is thus likely to get his way without significant opposition.

’Twas ever thus. Well, I do not watch “rape porn,” nor do I want to; nor, for that matter, do I imagine that it does no harm at all. Who honestly knows? But the defense here is not of “rape porn,” it is of the liberty of consenting adults, of the capacity of private companies to provide access to legal material without state preemption, and — most important — of a spectacularly successful Internet whose astonishing, inexorable growth has been the product of its remaining unregulated, decentralized, and ultimately backed up by the American First Amendment.

As ever, those objecting to David Cameron are questioning the wisdom and feasibility of the state’s deciding what is too “horrific” for adults to find and see, not whether such “horrific” content exists. They are questioning whether in order to keep children away from material that is not designed for them, the state should cut it off at the spigot rather than leave it up to their parents. They are aware that there is a solid reason that the Internet is, in David Cameron’s own words, an “invention” that “helps liberate those who are oppressed, allows people to tell truth to power,” and “brings education to those previously denied” — and that is that the Internet, like the flourishing American colonies in the two centuries prior to the revolution, has been left to what Burke described as “salutary neglect.” I am instinctively nervous of any digital Declaratory Act, and so should the British parliament be.

Justice Potter Stewart famously wrote in Jacobellis v. Ohio that he didn’t know what “obscenity” was, but that he knew it when he saw it. He went on to concede, however, that

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so.

Almost certainly he could not. But what was beyond Justice Potter’s considerable abilities is apparently not beyond those of the British bureaucracy, which, if David Cameron gets his way, is to be tasked not merely with defining “horrific,” “abhorrent,” and “extremely pornographic,” but also with drawing up a list of terms that search engines must block for everyone, deciding which content service providers must remove by default, and setting the boundaries beyond which pornographers may be criminally prosecuted even when their films feature consenting adult actors. Is this a wise precedent to set?



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