Clive Hamilton is his own worst enemy. His current ham-fisted attempts to promote proposed ALP policies to impose filtering software on Internet Service Providers to protect children from Internet porn are a case in point.
By making the utterly stupid statement that “[n]o man who regularly uses pornography can have a healthy sexual relationship with a woman“, Hamilton successfully alienates the very large slab of males in his audience who have viewed pornography, and aren’t sure whether they’ve done it often enough to meet Clive’s (unstated) definition of “regularly”. He also completely ignores the fact that academic research just doesn’t support his claim anyway.
But making that statement simply distracts attention from the very real issue of protecting children from pornography. Although the research doesn’t show major adverse effects of pornography (at least the non-violent kinds) on adults, almost no-one argues that children aren’t adversely affected nor that they shouldn’t be protected.
Libertarians argue that the State shouldn’t intervene and that it’s solely a parental responsibility to stop their children from viewing porn on the Net. But how? Certainly individual parents can invest in filtering software (NetNanny and the like), but many lack the knowledge or technical sophistication to do so, and the software is a long way from perfect. Moreover, the notion that parents should somehow be able to supervise their children sufficiently intensively to make sure they can’t access porn is one that only people with no children themselves could seriously advance.
Does that mean that the ALP’s proposal to force ISPs to install filtering software on their web servers is a good idea? Jason Soon lists some pretty cogent arguments against the Labor proposal:
- Studies carried out in Australia and overseas have demonstrated that filtering software causes extensive ‘collateral damage’, blocking many innocuous sites. Some ironic examples are the blocking of the National Party of Australia site and of Queensland parliamentary records. And many filtering products censor massive amounts of valuable information by blocking entire domains such as geocities.com, ozemail.com.au, or deja.com.
- >”Trying to force filtering software on unwilling adults will be as ineffective as it is repugnant”, said Yee. “And only filtering products that use open blocklists and algorithms — available for public scrutiny — should even be considered for use in schools. The process by which products are selected needs to be open and transparent, not carried out behind closed doors. And content providers must be informed when their content is blocked, so they have a chance to appeal the decision.”
These are cogent points. But they don’t establish the proposition that filtering is obnoxious per se. Absolute unrestricted freedom for adults to view pornography is not a value that self-evidently trumps protection of children irrespective of all practical considerations ( except perhaps for doctrinaire libertarians). Each of Jason’s points needs to be addressed on its merits.
A transparent filtering decisional regime could be legislated, for instance, although the experience with the regime implemented by Richard Alston and the Howard government suggests it would be likely to be impossibly unwieldy. Can those problems feasibly be overcome? I don’t know. Has Labor examined such questions? I don’t know that either, and Hamilton doesn’t tell us.
Similarly, is it possible to develop or tweak software so that innocuous sites aren’t blocked? Again I don’t know and Hamilton doesn’t say. And again these are facts we need to know. I would be very relaxed and even supportive of legislation requiring ISPs to filter extreme porn and establish viable regimes for verifiable age limits for access to ordinary porn, as long as Jason’s objections can be met.
The US Supreme Court ruled (for the second time) only a couple of months ago against the constitutionality of federal laws that sought to make purveying of Internet porn illegal per se. See Ashcroft v American Civil Liberties Union (29 June 2004). The law was held to breach the First Amendment guarantee of free speech. But US constitutional jurisprudence accepts that free speech is not an absolute value, and may sometimes be trumped by other public interest values (e.g. the protection of children). However, a law will only survive constitutional challenge if it goes no further than is reasonably necessary to protect those other legitimate public interest values, and does not improperly “sterilise” constitutiionally-protected free speech. In Ashcroft v ACLU, the Court held that the federal law in question did go further than necessary, largely by reasoning that legislating to require filtering software would be much less intrusive on the civil liberties of adults (and prima facie constitutional) than directly making material defined as “harmful to minors” illegal per se. The latter measure was seen as using too large a sledge hammer to smash the legitimate problem of protecting children from porn.
The ALP proposal would probably pass muster under the US Bill of Rights (and most others). As long as any law made pursuant to that policy proposal can meet the practical objections Jason Soon outlines, there is no proper civil liberties reason why it shouldn’t be supported, unless you believe that the rights of adults to view porn must always and necessarily trump all other values and interests i.e. an extreme libertarian position.
There are competing values and imperatives in play here, but Hamilton simply doesn’t address them. He isn’t doing the ALP any favours.
Update – As well as Jason, Al Bundy and Paul Watson both cover this issue, as does David Tiley. Al gives Clive a well-deserved fisking despite suffering the dreaded lurgie, while Paul does so (predictably) on the basis that Hamilton is a stupid Baby Boomer, and slightly less predictably as an opportunity to urge blokes rendered unable to “have a healthy sexual relationship with a woman” as a result of viewing porn, to consider going over to the dark side!!! I don’t like his chances somehow. He’d do better sticking to more traditionally sympathetic markets like priests and scoutmasters.