Making ISPs enforce age checks for porn puts responsibility where it might actually count

Too hot to handle, for children. hot stuff by Smolina Marianna/shutterstock.com

David Cameron’s desire to see ISPs tackle the availability of pornography to children has prompted some to ask at what point restrictions become an infringement of liberty.

The Conservative Party introduced legislation in 2014 that compelled UK ISPs to provide parental controls, presenting the bill-payer with a choice to block or allow pornographic content. Major ISPs such as BT, Virgin, TalkTalk and Sky have introduced these features, although according to Ofcom figures few households take up the option to use them.

The culture secretary, Sajid Javid, has declared that, if re-elected, the Conservative Party would take steps to regulate overseas ISPs as well as those based in the UK, requiring strong age-restriction controls based on credit card checks or by sharing passport or driving licence details through special software.

There seem to be three objections to this stronger approach to age-verification. First, that responsibility for preventing children’s access to pornography lies with parents not the state. Second, the concern around using identification that would create a direct link between an identifiable person and their viewing habits. And third, that the requirement for this identification would be likely to have an effect on the industry. For example, visits to free-to-view sites would be affected if viewers are put off by the need to use credit card identification more than pay sites (which require a credit card anyway).

There is also the fact that most, if not all, restrictions can be circumvented by anyone with sufficient technological knowledge – which often includes children. This is held up as a reason not to take steps that, despite having eroded our freedoms and privacy, won’t even be effective.

I’d argue that 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 with is whose sexual freedoms and rights does a neo-liberal approach embodied by these objections set out to advance?

Social control vs sexual freedom

Perhaps the major ethical issue that lies behind attempts to restrict access to pornography is the sexualisation of children through pornography. Much internet pornography is extreme, violent and profoundly degrading of women. Research has found that both young boys’ and young girls’ exposure to it is linked to beliefs that women are sex objects and to negative – and even fearful – attitudes towards sex.

‘Raunch culture’ is everywhere. x1brett

The question that should be asked in my view is not whether regulation of access to pornography is technologically viable, but whether leaving that responsibility to parents is viable. The current filtering technology is almost ineffective in preventing children from accessing pornography, however responsible and rigorous the parent. However rigorous parents may be with their own computers, it’s possible their child may access it either through their mobile phones or through devices belonging to other children whose parents have not opted to impose filters. So to suggest that the problem of children’s exposure to hardcore internet pornography can be overcome by individual parents and families is a red herring.

The “free” pornography sites that might be affected are not of course free, since they depend for their revenue on inducing consumers to pay for services. To whom would the damage occur if free pornography sites are affected as result of the proposed regulation? Should we extend our sympathy to the multi-billion dollar pornography industry for a potential loss of their income?

In any case, would the new regulation increase surveillance of our private habits any more than the myriad current online surveillance practices to which we are already subject, whether voluntarily or involuntarily? If adult use of pornography is 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 it does the chances of illegitimate government interference and control?

If we are adults, then let us be adults

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

It will help stay the pornography industry’s influence on children’s and young people’s sexual imaginations, identities and practices – and if adults then feel some shame because they can no longer be completely anonymous in their pornography-viewing habits then at least it is they as adults – and not the children – who will have to process their conflicted sexual emotions.

As well as the right to “adult” interests and a sexual life, isn’t learning to handle complicated feelings part of what being an adult means?