Anti-censorship across the political spectrum

This week, Mark Wallace, Executive Editor of ConservativeHome, explains the practical implications of an Internet porn filter for personal privacy. He argues that filtering will inevitably involve monitoring all of everyone’s internet use, since porn isn’t a well-established category of material easily divided from other content:

The only way to even start trying to filter all pornography is to empower the state to monitor everyone’s internet browsing, all the time.

Even if we were to accept such an unpalatable and intrusive policy, it wouldn’t actually do the job – for example, proponents of filtering have yet to offer an actual definition of what constitutes pornography or adult material. (It is important to remember that this issue is about filtering legal content, and is totally separate to criminal material, such as child abuse imagery or terrorist handbooks, hence the difficulty producing a definition.)

Legality is a good (perhaps the only good) starting point for justifying restrictions on some content. However, it is far from clear what is lawful to possess or publish online at the moment (whether text or images). The filter debate is taking place in a context of great uncertainty regarding what the law and public officials consider to be obscene.

Last month, Nick Cohen offered a well-judged review of Internet pornography censorship. He avoided endorsing porn as inherently liberating while warning of the dangers of heavy-handed banning. He concluded:

Everyone who wants wide-ranging censorship prefers vague claims about ill-defined threats rather than precise information. Intelligence services want to ban all revelations about their work to preserve their mystique and hide their crimes. Religious people want to punish all cases of blasphemy to protect their jealous god or gods. Homophobes argue against homosexual equality because it poses some hazy threat to heterosexual marriage.

If the protesters can find a link between the mysterious world of consensual sexual fantasy and crime, they would be right to ban. But, if they charge ahead and legislate without even bothering to explain the connections between image and reality, word and deed, they will give up more than they know.