About a year ago I wrote a piece entitled Australia Online, in which I suggested that public discourse has failed to consider the economic impact of Internet policy, and has instead been distracted by the fears and philosophical questions that the medium has raised. At the time, I had assumed that the Australian Labor Party's policy to implement a mandatory Internet filtering system – to be enforced by Internet service providers – was merely a ploy. After all, despite the obvious economic need to increase bandwidth, there are still a few crazies out there who are scared of new technology.
As it turned out, however, this is a real policy that the Rudd government is committed to. In fact, they are actually pushing for technical trials despite a massive public backlash. Get Up! Australia – a non-affiliated collection of activists – have come out against the filter on both the economic and civil liberties front, so far gathering at least 86,000 online signatures. On Facebook, more than 5,400 people have registered their intent to join this weekend's national street protest in the state capitals, with a further 7,400 maybe responses. And, after Stephen Conroy, the Minister for Broadband and the Digital Economy, launched his department's shiny new blog, there has been a non-stop flood of comments against the proposal. Here's a taste:
- The proposed filter is flawed for reasons both technical and social. Its up to parents to police their children's Internet exposure, not some governing body. As a voter and ICT professional for may years, I vehemently oppose such a useless attempt at pandering to the ignorant an uninformed.
- Ridiculous. This is like 1984 meets China. Whatever happened to the free world?
In an attempt to counter the arguments of civil libertarians and people who actually know how technology works, advocates of the scheme have been arguing from a secular moral high ground, and a close look at this story on the 7:30 Report epitomizes how the debate is being framed – with protecting children on one side and supporting Internet stakeholders on the other.
Clive Hamilton's recent opinion piece on ABC Online has been most scornful of those opposing the censorship proposal:
- The Internet has spawned a new cohort of libertarians who see the medium as the source of ultimate freedom…it's one more manifestation of the radical individualism of modern affluent societies. Trying to get the net warriors to acknowledge the extent of the social problem of youth access to pornography is nigh impossible.
Though it is true that the Internet has encouraged people like myself to value personal choice in what I read and watch — perhaps even more so than previous generations — the sad thing is that Hamilton's research base is completely skewed. The argument he makes is that a five year old survey of parents found 93% in favour of a mandatory filter, and that one can easily locate the most grotesque and violent forms of pornography on the net. What risk pornography in and of itself actually poses to young people is left unanswered.
You would think the latest research into the impact of pornography would be trawled out every now and then, but it is routinely assumed that the impact is very bad. No one seems to be putting up their hand to say that they are against the filter because they like porn — with the possible exception of the Australian Sex Party — and no one is willing to suggest that teenagers should be allowed to browse as they like either. But how wrong could so many people be?
According to McKee, Albury and Lumby's Porn Report, recently published by Melbourne University Press, research to date has been scant and flimsy at best. With aggregate studies producing inconsistent results, experimenters failing to account for how and why people use porn in the real world, case studies finding that sex offenders are actually lower users from repressed backgrounds, and surveys that don't consider asking users about the possible positives. The only conclusion that could be reached was that porn causes masturbation and, as rated by consumers in the author's own survey, the top 10 noted effects that porn has had on respondents lives were:
- Made them more relaxed and comfortable about sex (14%).
- Makes them more open-minded and willing to experiment (10%).
- Makes them more tolerant of other people's sexual pleasures (7%).
- Causes sexual arousal and pleasure (6%)
- Educates them about the mechanics of sex (6%)
- Helps maintain sex life in a long term relationship (5%).
- Makes them more attentive to partner's pleasure (3%).
- Forms identity and offers assurance to marginalized sexual groups (e.g. gay men) (2%).
- Helps them talk about sex with their partner (2%).
- Causes them to objectify people (2%).
Notably, the report also found that children exposed to normal pornography find it humorous and go about untraumatized; that teenagers have almost zero interest in seeking out (and are easily repelled by) images of sexual violence; and that older teens can use porn for self-education.
Naturally, in the face of such low risk factors, secular filter supports really don't have much of a case. After all, we don't ban cars just because a handful have died in them. The choice is not between protecting children and ruining the Internet, it is a choice between a sluggish nanny state and trusting our citizens enough to enable their activities.