Porn filters, politics and liberalism….

This afternoon the Lib Dems conference rejected a call for ‘default-on’ porn filters – an idea being pushed strongly by David Cameron – and rejected it decisively. A great deal has been written about this before – including by me (e.g. ’10 questions for David Cameron’ and the ‘porn-filter Venn diagram’) – so I won’t rehash the all of the old discussions, except to say that it seems to me that the decision to reject the plan is a victory for intelligence, understanding and liberalism. The plan would not do what it intended to do, it would produce deeply counterproductive censorship, and could both encourage complacency and discourage the crucial kind of engagement between parents and children that could really help in this area.

A revealing debate….

What does interest me, however, is the nature of the discussions that happened at the conference. The divide between those pushing the motion and those opposing it was very stark: it was primarily a divide of understanding, but it was also one of liberalism. The difference in understanding was the most direct: those in favour of the filters seemed to have very little comprehension of how the internet worked – or even how young people think and behave. In technical terms, their arguments were close to meaningless and the solutions they proposed were unworkable – while in terms of understanding the needs of young people, they seemed to be even further from the mark. The contributors on the other side, however, were remarkably good. I’m not a Lib Dem, but I couldn’t help but be very impressed by many of them. Three stood out: Julian Huppert, who is my MP and may well be the MP who understands the internet the best, Sarah Brown (@auntysarah on twitter, and councillor and noted LGBT activist), and Jezz Palmer (@LoyaulteMeLie on Twitter).

Jezz Palmer was particularly impressive, setting out exactly why this kind of thing would be disastrous for kids.

“Implementing these filters punishes children who are otherwise completely alone,” she said. “I know there are still kids growing up who feel how I did and there will be for generations to come. Don’t take away their only research, don’t leave them alone in the dark.”

Ultimately that’s the point. This kind of filter over-blocks – indeed, the blog post I first wrote on the subject a few months ago was itself blocked by a porn filter – and over-blocks precisely the sort of material that young people need to be able to find if they are to grow up in the kind of healthy and positive way that anyone with any sense of liberalism should promote. They need to explore, to learn, to find ways to understand – much more than they need to be controlled and nannied, or even ‘protected’.

The role of liberalism…

Is it a coincidence that those who understood the issues – both the technical issues and those concerning young people – were also those with the most liberal ideas about filtering and censorship? I don’t know, but I suspect that often there is a connection. The people that I know who work with the internet insofar as it relates to privacy and free expression come from a wide variety of political backgrounds – from the extremes of both right and left – but the one thing they tend to have in common is a sense of liberalism (with a very small ‘l’) in that they believe in individual freedom and individual rights. An understanding of or belief in the importance of autonomy, at a personal level, doesn’t fit neatly in the ‘left-right’ spectrum…

Whether the decision of the Lib Dem conference really matters has yet to be seen. The Lib Dem conference often makes fairly radical decisions – supporting the legalisation of cannabis is one of the more notable ones – but its leadership (and Nick Clegg in particular) doesn’t always follow them. They (and he) have, however, taken the advice of Julian Huppert seriously, particularly in the crucial decision not to back the Communications Data Bill (the Snoopers’ Charter). I hope they listen to Dr Huppert again, and come out as firmly against these filters as their conference has – because it could be a significant and positive move politically.

How will the other parties react?

The other parties will have been watching the debate – and both the Tories and the Labour Party are in many ways deeply untrustworthy where the internet is concerned, leaning in distinctly authoritarian directions in relation to surveillance, hard-line enforcement of copyright and the idea of censorship. I hope they noticed the key aspect of today’s debate: that the people who knew and understood the internet were all firmly against filters. I  suspect that fear of the likely headlines in the tabloids will stop them being as strongly against porn-filters as the Lib Dem conference has shown itself, but they might at least decide not to push so strongly in favour of those filters, and perhaps let the idea melt away like so many other unworkable political ideas. I hope so – but I will be watching the other conferences very closely to find out.

15 thoughts on “Porn filters, politics and liberalism….

  1. Yay for a glimmer of sense and reason on the matter. Like you I hope the other parties take note and this, at the very least, vanishes from our lives, sadly, I suspect that might not be the case but it would be wonderful it is.

    Mollyxxx

  2. That sounds like good news Paul. The dimension which you mention authoritarian v libertarian (although you use the word liberal- a word which is misused in the meaningless term neoliberalism ) is one which is often not recognised in British political discourse. Interestingly the public’s rejection of the call to bomb Syria may herald a new understanding that it is not always desirable to act hastily to deal with problems -especially when we don’t understand the full extent of the possible consequences.

    • I tend to use the word liberal, because libertarian has also been co-opted a bit by some on the right wing to mean something very different from what I think of as ‘liberal’ – a kind of ‘devil-take-the-hindmost’ form of uncaring individualism which is qualitatively different from the sort of liberalism that I like. Almost all political terms seem to be being misused these days!

      ….and I do think this is good news, though quite how much it signifies has yet to be seen.

  3. “….and I do think this is good news, though quite how much it signifies has yet to be seen.”
    Not really, this is a political gesture. In what has become a world of gestures, sound-bites and photo ops.
    The naked truth is much more simple. This Government, in fact all governments, are scared shitless by the internet. They cannot ‘control’ it, they cannot ‘police’ it in their normal way. Lap Dog media and tough policemen are unable to cut down the branches of truth that poke through their propaganda.
    Be warned, they are getting desperate, very desperate.

    • On the ‘scared shitless’ I completely agree – but I still believe this could, just possibly, mean something. Perhaps not now, but for the future. The level of ignorance and fear -and yes, desperation – can’t survive that much longer. In the end, they’ll have to face up to reality.

  4. My concern (as someone with some expertise in the area) was that even if the technology could do what those calling for the filters would like, it misunderstands the issue. Young people looking for pornography already know it exists; attempting to prevent access to something being sought just pushes the search underground and all the additional risks this entails.

    If you want to slow down the sexualisation process, i.e. increase the age at which they start looking for porn, you need to start much younger and be aiming at non-pornographic material; content suitable for teenagers is not necessarily suitable for 6 year olds.

  5. Paul,

    Thanks for an interesting post on a topic that is not often discussed or understood beyond initial platitudes or prejudices that descend into special pleading. I was wondering, though, if the idea of liberal education, which is implicit in your reference to liberalism and its role, is based on an idea that we share a common culture, the culture of the mind, so that there is no difference in age, only in our thoughts? More to the point, the idea of liberalism is that we are treated as individuals, so to quote Martin Luther King, we are judged by the content of our character rather than the colour of our skin (or our age, gender or nationality). However, these are simply passing comments.

    Your main point about the internet caught my interest. How does a regime educate its young? Does it have a responsibility to ensure they are educated appropriately and in ways that support the regime rather than undermine it or cause it to disintegrate? In most cases, they are sheltered so that they can develop an understanding of the world, without being forced to confront the dangers and responsibilities that accompany adulthood. (Children are not used in the military these days). Is that not one of the highest concerns in a regime because the young and their rearing (education) are the basis for the future of the country and thus intrinsic to its self-preservation?

    You will recall that Socrates was put to death, quite rightly, for corrupting the young. He agreed that he was corrupting the young, but for a higher purpose. (Somehow I do not think that unlimited porn was what Socrates was defending as a higher purpose or defined an examined life.) Yet, the internet is a not a question of how it works but why it exists and what purpose it serves. We may assume it is good that it exists, but has our moral development been improved because of it?

    I am not sure our young are better educated for having access to information as opposed to being taught and educated, which is commonly what people assume the internet does, but fails to do. I recall that Adam and Eve were banned from the Garden of Eden because they ate from the tree of knowledge (good and evil) which is in stark contrast to Goethe (the modern poet par excellent) who in Dr. Faustus said there is no sin but ignorance. Yet, this raises the deeper and more problematic question, of whether the internet and the information it provides satisfies our highest passions or our lowest. I have to admit it is our lowest passions (entertainments of a sort), pace Hobbes, that it serves. The intellectual or higher passions, especially towards philosophical interests or simply considering the best way to live are not served to the same degree.

    The issue though is not simply about individual freedom or autonomy, it is about the nature of the society we live within and whether our laws and institutions are structured to allow the true development of the human person. Or, are they are being warped to fit our passions, what we want, rather than what we need to find our highest aspirations that define us human?

  6. Yet what do you propose as a solution? Because while I agree with you that censorship can’t solve the problems, porn on the other hand does have and already had quite detrimental consequences for many teens and young adults. There’s no denying that either. Last but not least, what about the porn actors?

      • So we just need to teach them to be better at sex at a younger age? This appears a strange notion. Will we teach them to kill, after all many seem to do this poorly. Or, will we teach them to drink better so they can hold their liquor better. There seems be a strange notion that “education” is the answer when we seem to believe it is a process devoid of meaning and simply can accommodate any “product” rather than something that shapes their character and intrinsic person, dare I say i, their soul. Pornography warps the soul by putting the bodily pleasure as the highest priority for making us human. It denigrates our humanity because it inverts the passions for reason and this reflects an “education” that prioritizes the passion over reason. Kids know a lot about sex already, what they lack is an education that allows them to be human rather than one that simply enables them to better pursue their animal nature rather than their highest aspiration.

      • No, you miss the point fundamentally. Good sex and relationship education isn’t in any way about being ‘better at sex’ at a younger age. It’s about understanding how and when sex is and isn’t appropriate. Knowledge helps! In practice, countries with better sex education have lower rates of teenaged pregnancies, higher average ages of first sexual experience and so forth.

      • Paul,
        I would like to think it is as simple as “knowledge” yet, that is not what happens. Consider the results of this study, which shows that Sweden, for example, has one of the earliest rates of sexual initiation (even earlier than the US) and has extensive birth control education in place. http://prgmea.com/docs/pregnancy/64.pdf In the United States (home of the internet and the pornography industry, the teenage pregnancy rates are highest and the abortion rate is higher than any teenage conception rate in any other country!!)
        Or consider this study, which found almost no appreciable change in teenage pregnancy based on intervention http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC115855/ Although they do conclude that interventions need to start earlier and include more about relationships. However, that is all moot for two reasons.
        First, education is not about sex at this stage, it is about what it means to be human and how to relate to others in a humane way (something that pornography does to teach (nor does it claim to teach) and secondly, education may be the issue, but it is education about the person as a whole not about their sexual appetite or their sexual identity. Thus we return to where we started, how does a regime educate its young and is the internet there to educate or to titillate or stimulate? I would argue, in an echo of Rousseau, that the internet is a bad thing and has warped the emotional and moral development of mankind to a greater degree than any other invention to date. However, I may as well argue that the tide should not come in, but that does not mean that we cannot educate ourselves to transcend the deadening demands that the internet places upon as human beings.

      • I’m glad to see you’re not missing the point as fundamentally as you appeared to – but you do seem to be building a case based on a pretty huge straw man. The point about education in this case is to act as a counterbalance to the existence not only of porn but of cultural influences at every level. What’s more, it’s only a tiny part of the picture – there are huge numbers of other changes that need to happen. Too much to write about here….

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