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The UK Porn Police: Why I think ISP filtering is a (relatively) good idea

Last Updated: April 10, 2015

Last week I wrote an article about the UK porn issue for our e-magazine, Pure Minds Online. For those of you who aren’t up to speed, Parliament member Ed Vaizey has recently called some of the biggest Internet service providers in England to come together to do something about the availability of porn online.

The plan is for ISPs to block adult sites from coming through their pipelines unless a specific (of age) user requests it. This would effectively be an opt-in process.

To be sure, ISPs would have to answer a host of technical questions, not to mention the cost of such an endeavor, but already I’ve heard many people objecting to the very idea of this.

In general I’m in favor of the idea. Technical questions aside, let me respond to some of the objections I’ve heard.

1. So what if kids are being exposed to porn? Why would we limit our access to the Internet for something like that?

A question like this demonstrates a great degree of ignorance about the insidious nature of pornography and the harms it can cause. We easily forget that it is actually illegal (in the U.S.) to distribute or knowing expose minors to obscene material. Many societies recognize there is a value in protecting the minds of children from images they are not ready to see or process. For many groups in the UK, this is not a moral issue: they believe it is a public mental health crisis. With nearly a third of their kids seeing porn by the age of 10, they want to cut off access to porn at the source.

Today, we actually have the neurological data to back up this idea. Viewing pornography triggers a host of hormones and neurotransmitters in the brain. Dr. Jeffrey Satinover says, “modern science allows us to understand that the underlying nature of an addiction to pornography is chemically nearly identical to a heroin addiction.” Dr. William Struthers writes,

As men fall deeper into the mental habit of fixating on these images, the exposure to them creates neural pathways. Like a path is created in the woods with each successive hiker, so do the neural paths set a course for the next time an erotic image is viewed. Over time these neural paths become wider as they are repeatedly traveled with each exposure to pornography. They become the automatic pathway through which interactions with women are routed…With each lingering stare, pornography deepens a Grand Canyon-like gorge in the brain through which images of women are destined to flow…All women become potential porn stars in the minds of these men. (Wired for Intimacy, p.85)

And of course, these mental ruts are all the more significant for children. All the way through the teen years and early 20s, the brain is still undergoing critical steps of development. Early exposure to pornography can have drastic consequences.

Several studies have been done to show that a child’s “sexual media diet” has a direct correlation to their sexual activity and their future intentions to be sexually active. But when those sexual images are of a particularly graphic nature, this powerfully shapes sexual beliefs and relational development. So much Internet porn eroticizes violence, disrespect, and objectification, and yet in so many homes throughout the world, a child might only be one click away from viewing these things.

2. Won’t they keep records of who requests to see porn sites? I’m sure most people won’t want share that kind of information.

Of course the ISPs would keep records, but so does every other pornography service. If you subscribe to the Playboy channel, your cable company has a record of that (it’s how they know to charge you for it). Why should it be any different for requesting it on your computer?

3. But if I opt to get porn sites in my home, won’t my kids potentially be exposed to it anyway?

Of course, that could happen. The issue is putting control into the hands of consenting adults. If adults want their home computer to be able to access pornography, they can allow it. If they are concerned about their kids seeing it, then the consumers of pornography will bear the burden of purchasing the right software to protect their kids.

4. Why not just tell all parents to get good parental controls or filters?

While filters can be somewhat effective for blocking pornography, too few homes really take advantage of them.

The critical question is really about how our communication systems should be monitored. From the early days of radio and TV there were censorship bureaus. In the U.S. for instance, the FCC was established by Franklin Roosevelt with the assumption that the broadcast airwaves belonged to the people, much like a public park does. As the communication channels broadened and more options were available to people (like cable or satellite TV), premium services developed that contained less censorship. Consumers could “opt-in” to these services if they chose, but the “basic” channels were still under strict censorship guidelines because they were accessible to the general public.

When it comes to the Internet the situation is reversed. Non-consumers are asked to pay for and upgrade software to block blatantly obscene material they don’t want in their home, rather than having consumers subscribe to access to Internet ports or domains with adult content not accessible to the general public.

In my opinion, this has been a great oversight for Internet regulations from the beginning. Dr. Jill Manning comments about this: “How this reverse logic and practice came into widespread acceptance is, in my opinion, an example of the sexual industrial complex at work.”

  1. Rob

    It is not hard, or expensive to do. OpenDNS is already out there, licensing their technology would be far cheaper than developing something new. It’s simple to use, and the ISPs can easily block most porn using it. We aren’t trying to stop experts, but kids. All you have to do is google ‘free porn’ and OpenDNS technology would easily block all of the results.

    • Luke Gilkerson

      @Rob – I agree the technology is certainly available. For most ISPs, the sticky question they don’t want to get into is “What counts as porn?” It is a necessary question to ask, for sure, but one that many ISPs don’t want to touch with a 39 and a 1/2 foot pole.

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