I understand that we are in a very libertarian moment. I myself have become far more sympathetic to libertarianism over the years. But I just can’t get as worked up about David Cameron’s porn crackdown as Charlie can. I’m not saying the plan has no flaws, and I agree 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. From The Independent:
Separately, the former head of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection centre (CEOP), Jim Gamble, said Mr Cameron’s plan to tackle child abuse images by removing results from search engines like Google would be “laughed at” by paedophiles.
“There are 50,000 predators . . . downloading abusive images on peer-to-peer, not from Google,” he said. “Yet from CEOP intelligence only 192 were arrested last year. That’s simply not good enough.”
But Charlie’s objections seem far more fundamental, as if censorship in and of itself were always wrong. Yet surely it is conceivable that, just as there are hard cases for what amounts to obscenity, there are easy cases too? I could describe some of those for you if you like, but this is a family website. 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. In other words, hand-waving about, say, the peril to free speech of banning Lady Chatterley’s Lover says little about how to view some dimly lit bukkake compilation (don’t look it up if you think you might not want to know).
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. In that Independent article linked above, opponents are worried that sexual-health sites might be caught up in the new filters. Others are worried about Page Three girls (an entirely valid concern, I must say!). In other words, let ten rape-porn sites go free lest one STD fact sheet be banned.
As I’ve argued for years, the fact is that nearly everyone believes in censorship; we just think the censorship we like is a “reasonable regulation” and the censorship we don’t like is <gasp!> censorship! Unless you believe that there should be no legal impediment whatsoever to hardcore porn on, say, Saturday-morning broadcast television, you too believe in censorship. Similarly, if you believe there is some information — any information! — the government should be allowed to keep the press from reporting, you also believe in censorship. Now that we’ve established that in principle, we can argue about where to draw the lines. I am not for banning porn (if you could ban it at the local level, I would be more sympathetic to that). But I find the desire to help parents shield their kids from it entirely reasonable, humane, and laudable — and, yes, difficult.
Charlie writes at the end of his piece:
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.
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?
Regardless, it seems to me that virtually every major challenge of the human condition is ultimately “unstoppable”: Disease, crime, natural disasters, cosmic entropy, karaoke, etc. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to smooth out the rough edges, go for the small improvements where we 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 into or out of these filters does not strike me as Orwellian. And if the filters get too aggressive, then the Brits can fix them.
Charlie also says 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.” Maybe that’s true, but his case would be strengthened, I think, if he listed a few (here is one of my own, FWIW).