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.
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?
If it is, one has to ask: Why is sexual obscenity the only area that presents a sufficient threat to British virtue to justify action? Once this opt-in list is extant, what will prevent the government from adding other indecent terms to it? Why would it elect to put a firewall around pornography? Why not include also any of the viewpoints whose expression the British have made illegal and whose advocates the British ban from their country?
Another salient question: What records will be kept? If we have learned one thing from the NSA scandal it is that we now have no expectation of privacy when using the services offered by telecommunications companies. I’d venture that the reflexive defense that the government does not know what you said on your telephone call but does know that you made it will not be especially reassuring when transmuted into “we don’t know what you watched but we do know that you made sure that your connection was capable of receiving pornography and other frowned-upon material. Pervert!”
Smartly, Cameron is coupling his proposed measures with stricter prohibitions on child pornography. There is hopefully nobody who will resent these. Still, it is surprising that the prime minister seems to be unaware that, as Andy Dawson observes in the Mirror, “Internet service providers already do tireless work to prevent illegal material from appearing online and . . . Google has a zero tolerance policy towards content that features child abuse.” These bases are covered already, structurally at least.
All in all, this smacks of a power grab. There are so many other ways of keeping children from the dangers of online obscenity that one has to ask why the state has gone straight to direct censorship. Britain has, after all, not tried everything and been forced by repeated failure to resort to this; instead, the prime minister has plucked the issue from thin air and resolved to act.
Naturally, it is possible that his proposals will yield a small improvement. Even so, the costs appear to be considerable and, ultimately, the problem almost unstoppable. “Continuing to rise as usual,” recorded Henry of Huntingdon in the twelfth century, the tide “dashed over [Canute’s] feet and legs without respect to his royal person.” Eight hundred years ago, Canute was smart enough to know what he could and should try to change, and what was beyond his royal powers. Would that the incumbent prime minister were possessed of such wisdom.
— Charles C. W. Cook is an editorial associate at NR.