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Re: Some Porn Should Be Censored



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Jonah has just put up a column in which he takes issue with my piece on David Cameron and his proposed anti-pornography laws. I’d like to respond to a few of the criticisms. Jonah writes :

I’m not saying [Cameron’s] plan doesn’t have flaws or that it won’t do nearly as much as its proponents claim. It won’t, for example, do much of anything to stop hardcore pedophiles . . . But Charlie’s objections seem far more fundamental, as if censorship in and of itself is always wrong. But surely it is conceivable that just as there are hard cases for what amounts to obscenity, there are also easy cases too? I could describe some of those for you if you like, but this is a family website.

Correct, they are “more fundamental.” I’m about as close to a free speech fundamentalist as you’ll find here, I think. As I’ve written frequently, to the extent that it’s even acceptable in a constitutional republic, the censorship process tends to do more harm to liberty and virtue than that which is being censored. In this regard, I imagine that Jonah and I differ philosophically to a substantial degree.

Now, I don’t doubt that there is such thing as “obscenity” — there is, although it’s hard to define legally even in the supposedly “easy” cases. But I certainly don’t think that in combating it the state should be forcing Internet search engines to remove results, as this proposed law requires. Being private business, those search engines are of course entitled to eliminate whatever they wish; likewise, if an Internet service provider wishes to set some rules as to what it provides by default, then fine. That is its prerogative. But a government list that determines what is obscene and what is not and requires Google, Bing, Verizon etc. to conform to it? No thank you, Mr. Cameron.

The “who’s to judge?” refrain very often strikes me as camouflage for the more radical claim that judgment is either impossible or simply illegitimate.

Out of context, perhaps it does. Still, my primary objection is not to individuals coming to their own judgment as to what they consider to be pornography and what they consider to be art. It is to the government acting to assemble a list to be used for prior restraint. In other words, my answer to “who’s to judge?” is “well, not the state!” Likewise, I simply do not consider it to be the role of the government to ban consenting actors from filming fictional depictions of criminal activity, which this law would do. (And do inconsistently, too: Why, pray, is a violent rape scene in a blockbuster movie okay but a rape scene in an Internet porn clip not?)

At the root, I simply don’t want states embracing that power, especially in a country such as Britain in which people are routinely sent to prison for offending others with speech that the government regards as “unacceptable.” The British government can evidently not be trusted with free speech; it can’t be trusted with the Internet either.

It’s a bit like the death penalty. Opponents always want to argue that the death penalty is 100 percent wrong when the person about to be executed is a somewhat sympathetic figure, or when there is some real or alleged ambiguity about his guilt. But sometimes the evidence of guilt is overwhelming and the convict is a child rapist, mass-murdering demon. Then, suddenly, death-penalty opponents grow quiet as they await a more convenient poster child. So it is with obscenity.

Perhaps this is true of some. But it’s certainly not true of me, or of my argument. You find me the most depraved, appalling, outrageous, disgusting, obscene, nauseating thing you can and, providing that it is legal, I will still argue that the British government should not be banning it, having results for it removed from Google, or forcing ISPs to opt users in.

In truth, I’m not quite sure the death penalty example works. My opposition to this is much more in line with those who absolutely oppose the death penalty, regardless of whether or not “evidence of guilt is overwhelming and the convict is a child rapist, mass-murdering demon” than it is with those who oppose the death penalty depending on the enormity of the executee’s crimes. Easy cases, difficult cases, medium cases — I don’t want the Internet censored at all.

I am simply confused by Charlie’s argument here, as it gives back so much. He invokes a cost-benefit analysis, which is great by me. It concedes that improvement is possible — i.e. censorship has its place. But then he invokes King Canute and says the “problem is almost unstoppable.” Well, which is it?

Both. Prohibition certainly stopped people drinking as much as they were before. Nevertheless it wasn’t worth it.  Why? Well, not only because the state was unable to stop the tide but because its attempt to do so manifested itself in all sort of other ways, too: great expense, violation of federalism, horrible constitutional precedent, widespread and dangerous illegal alcohol, the creation of organized crime, common disrespect for the law, the corruption of law-enforcement, authorities wasting time on the issue, uptake in smoking, etc. I explain in my piece what side-effects I consider to be likely in this scenario.

As I said in my piece, Cameron’s measures are destined “ultimately” to fail. The “ultimately” in the sentence is important. For a little while at least, he may get his way. But then he won’t, just as the enemies of 3D printing will get their way for a little bit before the dam collapses and the tide comes rushing in once more. I don’t think that this is a mixed argument; I think it just appreciates that you can make small improvements against the inevitable, but only temporarily. I also don’t think that accepting that censorship can work is the same thing as accepting that it “has its place.” Lots of things “can work,” but that doesn’t mean they are tolerable in free societies.

Regardless, it seems to me virtually every major challenge of the human condition is ultimately “unstoppable”: Disease, crime, natural disasters, cosmic entropy, Karaoke, etc. That doesn’t mean we don’t try to smooth out the rough edges, go for the small improvements where you can and muddle through from one generation to the next. It is simply a fact that parents are very, very, hard-pressed to keep the pornification of society at bay. Letting households opt-in or out of these filters does not strike me as Orwellian. And if the filters get too aggressive then the Brits can fix them.

That is simply not the story of government in the West. It is almost always better to stop a system at the outset that to try and claw it back afterward. As I write in the piece, my objection is that the British government, for the first time, will have constructed a list of terms and content that search engines will be prohibited from providing results for — on pain of prosecution — and that providers will be required to block by default. The Internet, in free countries at least, has never worked like this. Ever.

Yes, it still resembles “the Wild West.” But so be it. The web has been an astonishing success story, growing up organically as a decentralized and mostly private structure that has been characterized by salutary neglect. David Cameron is proposing changing the way it works for all users in Britain in the name of effectively limiting something that pretty much nobody thinks he can effectively limit. I don’t think opposing that is so much “libertarian” as it is conservative — Burkean, even.



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