Our Scientifically Illiterate Overlords

There’s been a fair bit in the news in the past few years that shows an alarming tendency of those in power to ignore science when it comes to making policy, preferring instead to pander to illogical and irrational prejudices that they think will gain them votes.

We had the well respected Governmental scientific advisor, David Nutt, who was dismissed for daring to suggest that recreational drugs be classified according to their health risk.

Next we have noted pro-homeopath, Jeremy Hunt, being appointed Health Minister.

We have our heir to the throne, Prince Charles, lobbying government on behalf of his own flapdoodle products.

Now we have this:

Online pornography to be blocked by default, PM announces” (BBC News)

Porn depicting rape to be BANNED in crackdown on ‘poisonous’ websites as Cameron unveils protection for every home” (Daily FMail)

UK Will Soon Be Blocking Online Porn, Prime Minister Says” (Huffington Post)

 

I’ve got my concerns about this news on three grounds:

  1. It seems to be a response to media-inspired hysteria, focused on a few well reported and thankfully exceedingly rare crimes.
  2. Given the images they claim to be concerned about are already illegal, this is nothing more than an attempt to exert control over a form of media.
  3. It’s technically, legally and morally pointless

Hysterical response

Despite the impression one might glean from outlets such as the Daily FMail or The Sun, crime, and especially violent or sexual crime, is not only going down, but the rates of conviction are going up. To put it bluntly, less people are committing crimes and more of those that do get caught. Child abuse is rare and on a steady decline as well (despite attempts by certain religious organisations to perpetuate it). Because of a few high-profile cases of child killers and their association with images obtained off the internet, knee-jerk susceptible media organisations have formed the conclusion that all adult images on the internet are to blame, regardless of the mental health, background or social situation of the consumer. As the majority of these media providers cater to the numerous and voting-ready sections of society (namely the middle-class, middle-aged baby boomer generation), the government must appear to take the erroneous concerns seriously, instead of consulting with experts and, you know, actually investigating the links. Not only is this a prime example of mob-politics, but it seriously undermines the point of governments have advisors. Instead of working to convince the public of the facts, they’d rather make a show of pandering to the lowest common denominator. That way when it fails (as I’ll explain why later), it’s not their fault, but the fault of the liberals/ISPs/hack0rs/<insert-boogy-man-here>.

Existing illegality

The images linked to recent child abusers were already illegal. Possession, distribution and creation of such images is already banned and there is an agency devoted to exposing and preventing such crimes (CEOPS). That the government recently cut funding to CEOPS tells you all you need to know about their motives here. By lumping violent porn and child abuse images in with all forms of pornography, the government (and certain sections of the media) have created something called ‘ internet filth’; a dubious term based on some misguided Victorian sensibilities. The internet is notoriously hard to control and by demanding control over this ‘filth’ they can monitor and control all internet traffic on the premise that ‘filth’ is everywhere and easily obtainable by 5 year olds with only a few clicks of a mouse button. They ignore the fact that parents should be doing this control themselves, and that any parent who allows their child unfettered and unmonitored access to the internet is a naive or uncaring fool. If the government was serious about ‘protecting the children’, then CEOPS would be better funded and parents would be educated about kids and the internet. This is all about control, nothing more.

Pointlessness

How do you define pornography? Images of a sexual nature? Well, Wikipedia is full of such images. As are many health and educational websites. Allow exceptions for educational material? No problem, all those porn sites will suddenly rebrand themselves as educational. Okay then, allow for realistic diagrams and drawings, but no photographic images. That cheer you can now hear is all the Hentai (Japanese style comic porn) websites being let off the loop. There’s no easy or precise definition of porn and for something to be controlled legally, you need a solid definition else the whole thing will get bogged down in court cases.

The second easiest option (after a blanket ban on explicit images) is to create some kind of body that defines each image on a case by base basis. Not only is this expensive and time-consuming, who makes the decision of what’s ‘obscene’ and what’s not? What if they’re highly puritanical? Or exceedingly liberal? Once you get personal morals involved, then the whole thing is a farcical mess. Why should the legally allowable choices available to me as an adult be determined by someone else’s precise moral judgement? Porn isn’t being made illegal, just hard to access, and the difficulty is being set by someone else’s judgement. That’s not right, no other aspect of our lives will be so controlled.

There’s also the issue of ‘creep’. I’m not a fan of the slippery slope argument. It never works and is a gross fallacy. If you have an issue, then draw your line in the sand at that issue, not the step before. However, this is different. Once procedures are in place for the government to legally block content on moral ground, then who’s to say what they decide is ‘objectionable’ content next time? Anti-government rhetoric? Dissent? Censorship, once instigated, is hard to pull down but easy to create. I don’t pretend we have true free speech in the UK, but each time they try to stifle comment is another chip eroded from liberty. An apocryphal quote from Benjamin Franklin runs along the lines of ‘Any government that trades a little liberty to gain a little security, deserves neither and will lose both’.

Finally, from a technical perspective, as anyone who’s ever learnt anything about the internet is that there’s always a way around blocks and filters. A ban or opt-out filter like this will do nothing but inconvenience the novice user. Anyone with any sense or technical ability will proxy/darknet or simply just bypass the system altogether. It won’t stop the trade in child abuse images and it won’t stop that 14 year old computer genius from evading the very filters someone thought would work. Yes, it might stop the odd instance of innocent web searching coming up with something adult. But then if you’re so naive as to improperly word a search on Google without setting content filters, then you probably deserve to see the internet at its finest.

 

So, make a fuss, question your MP, raise the issue. This isn’t about accessing porn, despite the fun it can bring. It’s about our government being clueless about science and technology and attempting to use Victorian-esque moral views to control the internet.

 

</rant over> 😉