Why Internet Porn Shouldn't Automatically Be Censored

Porn is the price we pay for the rare consumer good that is true freedom of information.

A month ago, Health Minister Yael German proposed having all Israeli citizens automatically be added to the organ donor database, unless they explicitly sign a form declaring they're not interested.

This prompted all of us to think about the difference between opting in and opting out.

Opting in is like getting a newspaper subscription: You will only find a paper in your mailbox if you get a subscription. Opting out is like the advertising leaflets and junk mail that line your mailboxes. Apparently there's a way to end this nuisance, but those who place the ads there are counting on you not to bother.

On occasion, different reformers or do-gooders suggest adopting spammers' tactics to increase the target audience for their favorite objective. They justify that by reasoning that your rights are less important than their reforms.

Which brings us to British Prime Minister David Cameron, who recently proposed blocking online pornography – as a default – unless a household or user specifically request access. "Online pornography is corroding childhood," Cameron said in a speech he delivered to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. The proposed law would require every new Internet customer to state specifically whether he's interested in a free and unfiltered Internet. Britain evidently made no effort to learn the lessons of the censorship efforts of another English-speaking country, Australia, whose initiatives aimed at educating the nation bear fruit time and again.

In Israel, the largest attempt to censor the Web -- a famous Shas draft bill, which demanded that Internet service providers automatically include filters for all new clients unless specifically asked not to – ended without results in 2008. But now, perhaps following the lead of enlightened countries like Iceland and England, which are seeking Internet pornography bans, this draft bill is making a comeback.

If there is one place that needs to combat the government's desire for censorship, it is Israel, a country in which the government can close newspapers by dint of the British Mandate-era press order, or arrest criminals who embarrass it without a trial and without revealing their name to anyone; a place where everyone, from officials in the Interior Ministry to diligent workers in the service of the Tel Aviv municipality, is trying to store our personal information in unsecured databases.

No one is saying that everything that can be found on the Web is worth finding. But the principle that guides the Web, the neutrality of the Web, determines that nobody will try to block or collect an additional payment for the communication between an Internet user in Timbuktu and one in Netanya. That's the freedom that allows Syrian, Turkish and Egyptian demonstrators to expose the injustices of their governments to the world, and that's the same freedom that enables porn starlets to become rich.

There is no force in the modern world that has had as far-reaching an influence as this freedom of information, and it has a lot of enemies – from governments who censor or block the Web from citizens to maintain their power to those who spy on citizens and non-citizens to maintain their power to those that try to educate their nations and safeguard their souls to maintain their power.

Censoring the Internet is a bad idea even if you don't like porn, and even if the censors promise you that porn is the only thing that will be affected. Give a regulator a finger and, well, you know the rest. For example, if Israeli filters are targeting porn, they are also likely filtering out gambling sites. And "hate sites," whatever that means. Who decides what is and isn't on the list? Well, that's exactly the issue – it isn't you.

Advance refusal is coercion. It's a "soft" form of coercion – after all, if you want to refuse such censorship, you have the right. But if it's so easy to evade this coercion, why bother? You bother because advance filtering works. You bother because the fine mechanics of coercion work like this: In order to surf the Web freely you'll have to brand yourself a pervert.

It may be fashionable to say that porn is bad, but it's still permissible to say that these arguments are extreme, not to say hypocritical. It should be clear to everyone how foolish and harmful it is to say that porn, any porn, is as bad as pedophilia or trafficking in women. Restrictions on porn in the name of protecting children don't work, because children can still give parents a lesson or two on how to Web censorship. The only lesson that parents can teach their children, apparently, is that they should be ashamed of their curiosity.

Porn is no more or less than the price we pay for the rare consumer good that is true freedom of information (some will claim that it's a pleasant price to pay). But there are no discounts on this price. There's no such thing as freedom with restrictions. Only a breach beckons lawmakers.
 

An illustrative photograph of a man looking at pornography online.
AP
AFP