UNITED KINGDOM—Claire Perry, a conservative member of the British parliament, has called for a mandatory opt-in filtering mechanism for internet service providers in the United Kingdom. During a 45-minute debate last week, Perry and other supportive MPs argued that the accessibility of hardcore pornography to children was a national emergency that requires immediate action by the government.
"As a mother with three children I know how difficult it is to keep children from seeing inappropriate material on the internet,” she said. “We already successfully regulate British TV channels, cinema screens, high street hoardings and newsagent shelves to stop children seeing inappropriate images and mobile phone companies are able to restrict access to adult material so why should the internet be any different? British internet service providers should share the responsibility to keep our children safe so I am calling for ISPs to offer an ‘opt-in’ system that uses age verification to access pornographic material."
The proposal—which takes a page from the Australian plan, currently on hold for a year, to mandate the actual censorship of adult content from being accessed by anyone Down Under—would allow adults to see the stuff, but only if they prove their age first. It is a scheme more similar to the hoops the Germans make their citizens jump through, and allows free speech advocates such as Perry (uh-huh) to argue that they are not censoring any speech, but just making it a little harder for children to access it. The slippery slope will be dealt with later, on a case-by-case basis.
Orwell would not be surprised by the proposal, which would effectively make the appropriateness of content suitable to minors the de facto standard for the availability of freely accessible content in Britain, though the actual age used to set the standard was not addressed by Perry. In the United States, these sorts of proposals have been made before (i.e., COPA) and struck down as unconstitutional. One can only hope, considering the current make-up of SCOTUS, that future attempts will be similarly rejected.
Needless to say, free speech proponents are outraged by the proposal.
“Perry’s idea might also be really great—if anyone, in any free Western country could agree on a universal definition of “pornography,” wrote ZDNet blogger Violet Blue. “But fear-based censorship campaigns that use sexuality to push legislation always make me want to get out the popcorn and beer, and so I read on. What got Perry all obsessed with Internet porn and kids? BBC tells us,
“Four in every five children aged 14 to 16 admitted regularly accessing explicit photographs and footage on their home computers, according to Psychologies magazine.
“Wow—how did they get those precise statistics,” continued Blue. “One thing I can tell you from researching and writing about pornography and technology for ten years is that stats like those are incredibly hard to come by. They are, in fact, impossible to come by at this point in time.”
It may be that Perry’s proposal goes nowhere, and that the idea of forcing adults to prove they are of age in order to gain access to adult content is as odious to the right-center government as it should be. But contained in the arguments for the plan were all the other claims with shaky foundations in fact, such as the association made between seeing adult content and committing acts of sexual abuse, or the idea that pornography is an inherently addictive product.
It would be an equal shame if these are allowed to proliferate without further scrutiny based on empirical fact while a larger, more obvious sin is struck down as being simply too extreme for the moment. One day, if the debate does not mature, it may not seem so extreme even for the most seemingly liberal democracy.