To those following the government debates on access to internet pornography, the announcement of an opt-in porn filter will not surprise, but may disappoint. David Cameron has been hinting that he’d throw this red meat to a social conservative base greatly disappointed in their Conservative Prime Minister legalising same-sex marriage. Yet this illiberal move should be at odds with the principles of a liberal conservative.
We have the spectacle of BBC newsreaders curling their lips whenever they have to say that most undignified word, “porn”. To see the absurd overreactions to the government’s plans, one might think porn to be a satanic ritual, not fit to be discussed in civilised society. I’ve never been one for the pearl-clutching moralising of conservatives on the “evils” of pornography. I don’t see how watching two (or more) people doing the most natural act in the world in front of a camera would “scar” you. Most teenage boys have watched internet porn before they’ve turned 18. The vast majority are not porn addicts or violent rapists. There has been no marked increase in sexual violence since the 1990s, when internet porn became prevalent. A 2010 Swedish study published in the Journal of Sex Research found that teens who viewed porn were able to distinguish between it and sex in the real world.
Regardless of inconclusive evidence, porn viewers are to be castigated and chastised. That is what this is all about. If Cameron was concerned about children accessing internet pornography, he would have pressed ahead with the “Active Choice” plan promoted voluntarily by ISP’s, under which all internet users who wished to block porn could do so. By making porn-free the default choice, porn users are forced to out themselves and admit their “perversion” to their ISP’s. This is little more than a witch hunt. Watching porn goes from being a natural act indulged in by many normal adults, to a suspect activity that one has to affirmatively opt-in to. This demonisation was achieved brilliantly by Mr Cameron. The filter was announced on the same day as new measures against child porn. Cameron, while stressing their differences, mixed them in his speech to the NSPCC.
Furthermore, porn is generalised by Cameron as violent and abusive and extreme, corroding children’s views on what makes relationships healthy. This tactic is surely learned from the Christian Right in America, where the simple viewing of porn is conflated with chronic porn addiction. Even this supposed epidemic of young children finding hardcore pornography on the internet has been greatly exaggerated and whipped up by certain quarters of the more hysteria-prone organs of the press like the Daily Mail. Incidentally, the Daily Mail’s headline celebrating the porn filter featured right next to the infamous Mail sidebar of shame, filled with half-naked, dare one say pornographic, photos captured of unsuspecting celebrities. At least porn actors consent to be objectified and, unlike many of the Mail’s subjects, are over the age of 18.
Yet, what is most surprising about this move is its direct contradiction of so basic a conservative value as the primacy of the family, not the state, in regulating children’s conduct. This has been central to the opposition by conservatives to any legislative attempts to ban child smacking. Whenever proposals have come up in the UK, parental autonomy has been the weapon brandished by conservatives against them. A 2004 attempt to ban smacking was almost gleefully welcomed by Michael Howard and condemned as unwarranted “nanny state” interference in the home. Yet this familial sovereignty and the unique place of parents, so inviolable in the case of smacking, is cast away completely by the porn filter. The filter is a usurpation of the proper role of parents in determining what material and information their children have access to. It should be parents, not the state, who monitor and restrict children’s internet use.
Unfortunately this abdication of authority has been voluntary on the behalf of many parents too confused or too lazy to properly regulate their children online. But this can be no excuse. If a parent doesn’t understand how to block inappropriate content online, then why are their children accessing the internet without adult supervision? Ignorance and/or lack of time is no excuse. It is fundamentally a parent’s responsibility to regulate their children’s internet use, either through voluntarily downloading child-protection software or by monitoring what their children are looking at. To lazily delegate this responsibility to the state is not only unfair on all adult internet users, who are also infantilised when their internet is filtered, but it further allows the state to usurp powers that parents should be exercising. Such interference should be feared not only by liberals, but conservatives also.