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Let the Internet Be: Why Blocking Porn Won't Save the Children

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I know this may sound weird coming from a mother of three young kids, but I am always wary of legislation passed in the name of protecting children. Obviously, I'm as keen as the next feeling human being to save kids from harm. It's just that when laws are passed with this explicit goal as justification, they tend to be not only of questionable help in achieving this end, but also to trample on the rights and freedoms of everyone, including said kids who will one day be adults hoping to go about their lives in a free society. And nowhere is this truer than in the case of the U.K.'s newly announced porn-blocking program.

The initiative is being sold by British Prime Minister David Cameron this way: "This is, quite simply, about how we protect children and their innocence." But it will impact almost every single Internet user in the United Kingdom.

Basically, "family-friendly" filters that block all pornography will be put in place by the major providers that deliver Internet service to almost 90% of U.K. homes. These porn-blocking filters will be the default. To opt out of them, customers will have to specifically tell their ISPs that the wish to access porn. (Delightful conversation to have with a confused worker in a cell centre in India, I'm sure. And how private will this choice be kept?)

Keep in mind that the filters in question will not just be blocking child porn, or violent pornography -- images that are depicting crimes and entailing and/or encouraging abuse. They will also be blocking perfectly legal, consensual, non-violent adult movies and sexual content. If a married couple happens to want to take an online peek at an erotic film together, they will be out of luck unless they're willing to check the "count us in as pervs" box on their Internet contract first. It's an awfully blunt instrument to use to keep sexually explicit material out of the hands of children, especially when there are so many more reasonable alternatives. Such as, parents who are concerned about this issue just installing filters themselves (rather than the government applying a filter on the entire country). Or parents keeping the computer in a kitchen or living room, rather than in a kid's room.

You might argue that those last two solutions will never work. Teens determined to find porn will find a way to view it. They'll go to a friend's place and/or use a proxy or VPN to get to the stuff they are desperate to see. Well guess what? The same is true of adults too, which is why the porn blocking program is such a bad idea. The default filters may serve to shame and interfere with the lives of those people too meek to break the rules, but the rest of the population will simply get around them with IP spoofing or the like. Heck, given the strength of the desire for online porn, the U.K's program (and others like it) just might lead to the mainstreaming and perfecting of online privacy tools to keep government snoopers at bay, as Peter Nowak argues in an excellent piece in the Globe and Mail. Which may be a boon for libertarians, but will do nothing to further PM Cameron's stated goal of keeping children sheltered from danger.

Nowak makes another good point, as well: It's not like making porn tougher to access online is going to quash the desire for it. As he puts it, "People have been wanting to look at penises, vaginas and boobs in various states of copulation since, well, since there's been copulation." This is not a new phenomenon. Nor does it make sense to pretend that the prevalence of porn is anything but a reflection of what our society currently views as generally ok. As Mark Steyn despairs on the National Review Online, in a short piece about Anthony Weiner, "What's the point of regulating porn in a world in which voters are willing to elect a serial porn fantasist who uploads his erections?" Trying to effectively impose a legal ban on something that most people already accept as being easily forgivable, if not completely unremarkable, is a sure way to debase the currency of the more important laws out there.

Is it a problem that so much of society is this casual about explicit sexual images? I don't know. It does disturb me as a parent to hear about how nonchalant many young teens seem about sexting and sharing nude "selfies." And personally, I would have a very tough time voting for Anthony Weiner given his penchant for broadcasting his anatomy, let alone any other considerations. But even if we do have a problem with our attitude to porn and sexual imagery, simply trying to block that material (or close our eyes and pretend it doesn't exist) is hardly the way to fix it.

You can't educate someone about safer or healthier ways to approach human sexuality if you're not willing to deal with it all. And you can't protect children's innocence by censoring the entire population. Nor would you be wise to try.

David Cameron And Aung San Suu Kyi
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