The pornography of technology: whose freedom should be preserved?

Posted by ap507 at Apr 30, 2015 02:10 PM |
Dr Heather Brunskell-Evans discusses issues around individual freedom in regards to the consumption of porn - and who is responsible for the influence it has on children

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The Technology section of the Guardian has published an article which examines proposed governmental restrictions of ISPs. Samuel Gibbs, the author, poses a primarily ethico-political question to the reader, and then combines this with a subsidiary, technological one: He asks: ‘Should the UK age-restrict porn – and if so, is it even viable?’

Although written with a light, populist touch, the views Gibbs expresses place his thoughts firmly in a strictly neo-liberal camp: responsibility for children’s internet viewing lies with parents not the state; in the pornography market place the availability of ‘free’ pornography should not be threatened; the individual sexual liberty and privacy of the ‘adult’ (male?) pornography consumer should not be eroded.

The Conservative Party and the Regulation of ISPs

The Conservative Party introduced legislation in 2014 compelling UK ISPs to provide parental controls that can block children’s access to certain web-sites. On setting up a new broadband connection in the home, the bill payer is given a choice to filter pornographic content.  As it stands this filtering is a matter of option, not compulsion, and it is estimated that only one in seven households takes it up.

What concerns Gibbs is that the Conservatives want to take filtering even one stage further and compel pornography sites to verify age beyond the simple mouse click on the ‘I am 18 or older’ age gate.

The culture secretary Sajid Javid has responded to a recently published NSPCC Childline survey about children’s pornography consumption with a pre-election pledge.  He has declared that, if re-elected, the Conservative Party would increase regulation not only of UK but also of overseas ISPs. ISPs will have to put in place age-restriction controls through a process which would require the consumer to prove adulthood by credit card verification check or by sharing details of their passport or driving licence through special pre-approved software.

Social Control or Sexual Freedom?

Gibbs mounts a case for questioning the proposed legislation.  He makes 3 points:

First, he suggests responsibility for preventing children’s pornography consumption lies with the parents and not the state. He asks ‘should the government really be doing this or should it be down to the parents to control their children’s access to the internet’?

Second, he is concerned the pornography industry will be restricted in the products it offers. He asks ‘Could the Conservatives’ pledge … mean the end of free porn in the UK?’ Using forms of identification will ‘directly link an identifiable person with their viewing habits … and is therefore likely to damage adult sites offering free access’.

Third, he is conscious of the sensibilities of the adult consumer. He asks ‘would the legitimate viewers of hard-core pornography be comfortable with verifying their age and linking their viewing habits directly to themselves’?

Furthermore Gibbs points out that age restrictions can always be circumvented with a little technological knowledge. In his view this raises the question of whether having eroded our freedoms and privacies, increased regulation will even be effective at doing the job it sets out to accomplish.

I argue the relationship between new technologies, sexuality and human rights is a serious issue for advanced liberal democracies. The balancing act required between rights and responsibilities needs our collective attention. The question I am concerned to ask is: Whose sexual freedoms and rights does a neo-liberal approach set out to advance?

What I say below in answering my question leaves out, for the purposes of this article alone, issues surrounding the freedoms, liberties, choices and consent of those whose sexual bodies are exchanged and bought in the production of pornography.   Here I remain focussed on consumption.

The Rights of the Pornography Consumer

I would have expected more than a cursory moral nod in this article to the ethical issue at hand, namely the prevalent sexualisation of children through the tropes of pornography. Much internet pornography is extreme, violent and profoundly degrading of women; research has found that young people’s (both boys and girls) exposure to it is linked to beliefs that women are sex objects, and to negative and even fearful attitudes towards sex.

The question that Gibbs should have asked in my view is not whether regulation of children’s pornography consumption is technologically viable, but whether leaving responsibility to parents is viable. The current filtering technology is almost ineffective in preventing children from accessing pornography however responsible and rigorous the parent.  Children consume it either on their own mobile devices or through the multiple devices of other children whose parents have not opted for filtering devices.  It is thus a red-herring to suggest that the societal problem of children’s exposure to the ubiquity of hard-core pornography on the internet can be overcome at the individual level of parent or family.

The ‘free’ pornography sites to which Gibbs refers are of-course not free since they function as gateways to paid sites and depend for their revenue on inducing consumers to pay for the further advertised services. It is not clear to whom the damage would occur, in Gibbs view, if there was some reduction in free pornography sites as a knock on effect of the proposed regulation. Do we extend our sympathy to the pornographers of the multi-billion dollar industry or to the consumer wishing to remain anonymous?

In any case, would the new regulation increase surveillance of our private habits any more than the current myriad surveillance practices we voluntarily subject ourselves to online? If adult pornography consumption is legitimate and harm free, as its proponents claim, what has the user got to fear with regard to his own sexual predilections? Does the fear of surveillance say more about the guilt attached to consuming pornography than about any empirical reality of illegitimate government social control?

If we are adults, then let us be adults!

I argue that in weighing up the costs and benefits of social regulation which any liberal democratic government, left or right, is compelled to perform, regulating ISPs with regard to age-restriction would, on the whole, increase freedom rather than restrict it.

By helping stay the pornography industry’s influence on children’s and young people’s sexual imaginations, identities and practices, if adults then feel some shame because they can’t be completely anonymous when they click onto ‘free’ sites then at least it is they and not the children who will be impelled to process their conflicting sexual emotions. As well as the ‘right’ to a sex life, isn’t learning to handle complicated feelings part of what being grown up means?

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