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Major, developed countries successfully banning online porn would almost certainly lead to innovation and the mainstreaming of privacy tools that could keep our governments from illegally spying on us. (Photos.com)
Major, developed countries successfully banning online porn would almost certainly lead to innovation and the mainstreaming of privacy tools that could keep our governments from illegally spying on us. (Photos.com)

Why Britain’s anti-porn mega-filter is great (no, really) Add to ...

So British Prime Minister David Cameron is keen to ban online pornography. Please sir, can I have some more? Seriously.

Against the odds, I’m pulling for the filter to actually work. That said, I’m not optimistic about this plan – which will require Internet service providers to enact default filters – and I’m also unhappy about all the free speech the attempt will inevitably trample. But this likely failure is too bad because it’s actually the kind of jolt the world sorely needs at this specific moment in time.

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Major, developed countries successfully banning online porn would almost certainly lead to innovation and the mainstreaming of privacy tools that could keep our governments from illegally spying on us.

A successful filter, if only it were possible, would result in some of the more arcane privacy tools that are currently the domain of the more tech-savvy – Internet protocol spoofing, domain name system changing, virtual private networks – becoming cheaper and more user-friendly. Such tools are already emerging in the form of apps such as Hotspot Shield, or Toronto-based SurfEasy, but the more the general public learns about and adopts encryption of their online activity, the better they’ll be able to keep the NSA and other government snoopers out of their business.

Look, demand for porn simply isn’t going anywhere. People have been wanting to look at penises, vaginas and boobs in various states of copulation since, well, since there’s been copulation. The Internet, and more specifically digitalization, has made that easier than ever.

Through torrents and sexually explicit YouTube clone sites, not to mention official outlets from its producers, porn is one of the easiest and cheapest things to get online. It’s even easier to get than free newspaper articles. Some estimates suggest that as much of a third of all Internet traffic consists of lascivious content as a result.

Porn producers, ironically, would also love it if such a ban were successful. They’ve been hemorrhaging profits for years because of all the free content, but unless they’re prepared to go back to the days of VCR and stop producing digital photos and videos that can be easily copied and distributed, nothing is going to stop their stuff from being spread freely.

Brits will still have access to this cornucopia of online porn under Cameron’s plan, but they’ll have to have an embarrassing conversation with their ISP wherein they’ll have to ask to keep it turned on. It’ll be the modern-day equivalent to furtively buying a Playboy at the corner store, with similar “I read it for the articles” justifications: “Uh, why yes, Mr. ISP, I’d like the filter turned off so I can read National Geographic’s studies on mating habits in primitive societies.”

Young people’s habits, meanwhile, won’t be fazed. As soon as the filter is cracked – the smart money has it happening within hours of activation – the instructions on how to do so will be available to anyone who can type words into Google. And then what? Will the British government ban search engines from listing that information? It may as well jump on banning instructions on how to do pretty much anything illegal. It’s the slippery slope argument that free speech advocates will have a justifiable field day with.

It’s also why Australia dumped a similar plan last year in favour of a much more limited content blacklist, as determined by Interpol. Even that filter, known as Delimiter, can be defeated by a “trivial” change to the user’s settings, Australian ISP Optus admitted back in 2011.

And what about the supposedly harmful problem of children accessing pornography online? On that front, the British government is probably coming at the issue all wrong. A more holistic and less oppressive approach would likely be more effective.

Modern-day prudishness is a by-product of the Industrial Revolution, explains Bryant Paul, an associate professor at Indiana University and affiliated scholar at the Kinsey Institute, which studies sex. Prior to the advent of in-home heating and electricity, families shared rooms and even beds in order to keep warm at night. That meant Junior was privy to everything that went on between mom and dad, copulation included. Children were also often present during childbirth. In the 17th century, there was no part of human anatomy or sex they weren’t familiar with.

Yet, as electricity allowed children to move into their own rooms, they became separated from the process, after which it became mystified. Suddenly, sex became something kids could only learn about “when they were older.”

The issue has worsened in modern times, Paul says, because sex education has been so de-emphasized in many developed countries. With institutional taboos strengthening, kids are having no choice but to learn about sex from internet pornography, which is not the best way to go about it. Education is great, but kids probably don’t need to learn about things like group-sex and bukkake (do not Google that term, it is definitely NSFW).

“They need to be exposed to some of this stuff. They don’t have to watch hard-core pornography, but they need to know where babies come from and what sex is,” he says.

It’s an age-old truism: when something is demystified and made common, it becomes understood and often less desirable. When it is instead put behind walls, it only becomes more prurient, prompting people to come up with ways to break through, regardless of what they’re told.

Ironically, in this case, those same hole-poking mechanisms – pardon the pun, it’s really hard to write about this stuff without verging into titillation (dammit!) – will also likely result in stronger walls on the part of the individuals.

Peter Nowak is the author of Sex, Bombs and Burgers: How War, Porn and Fast Food Created Technology As We Know It .

Follow on Twitter: @peternowak

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