On Paternalism and Porn Filters

Liberal Democrat president Tim Farron has not been my favourite person since the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government was formed in 2010. The grumpy noises emanating from the Liberal Democrat party hierarchy have all too often been agitations for more specifically left-wing policies rather than the promotion of liberal ones, and I have no truck with that. But yesterday, Mr. Farron won my agreement and earned my support.

The Daily Mail reports:

Liberal Democrats have triggered fury by vowing to overturn David Cameron’s plans for internet porn filters.

Child safety experts and MPs called the move ‘irresponsible’ and warned it would undermine attempts to protect children from hardcore pornography.

Lib Dem party president Tim Farron said the Government should enshrine the ‘digital rights of the citizen’ and halt requirement for ‘filters, lists or controls on legal material’.

Tim Farron correctly labels the government policy as “misconceived, ineffective and illiberal”. It is certainly misconceived – a majority Conservative government with a mandate to roll back the onerous size of the state has no place enacting laws that further chip away at the notion of personal responsibility. It has also been proved to be ineffective – a simple browser extension has already been released which simply bypasses the filter. And the illiberality of the policy speaks for itself.

Insidious yet inept.
Insidious yet inept.

The Independent quotes Farron in further detail, perfectly summing up the argument for the correct way to protect children from adult material in a liberal country:

“If the Prime Minister really wanted to protect children from inappropriate material, he’d ensure they had access to good sexual health and relationship education and give parents the help and support they need to talk to their children about this issue,” he said.

Absolutely. But the daddy-knows-best wing of the Tory party sadly sees things somewhat differently:

Party sources described the new Lib Dem approach as “disappointing”.

“Tim Farron clearly does not want to prioritise the safety of our children online or support our efforts to prevent anyone accidentally accessing illegal material,” they said.

Anyone could have seen this weak, manipulative counter-punch coming from a mile away. Anyone who believes in personal responsibility and empowering and trusting parents to act in the best interests of their children must, according to this worldview, be maniacally obsessed with pornography whilst simultaneously holding the safety of children in complete and utter contempt.

What complete and utter nonsense.

Quite.
Quite.

I invested my precious time and effort pounding the streets of my hometown campaigning for the Conservative Party in the last general election campaign in 2010, but it is policies such as this which make me roll my eyes and question whether it is worth my time and effort to do so again in 2015. The MP I campaigned with, Robert Halfon, has proven himself to be an excellent constituency MP for Harlow since that time, but the coalition government in which his party is the senior member has delivered letdown after letdown on issues of civil liberties and returning responsibility to the individual.

After thirteen years of Labour government I was desperately looking forward to a rollback of the paternalistic, controlling, pseudo-benevolent state that had grown inexorably during that time. Of course I anticipated some inevitable compromises resulting from the fact that the Conservatives had to take on the Liberal Democrats as junior partners in coalition, but I never expected to find myself cheerleading the Liberal Democrat stance over the Tory one on fundamental issues of privacy and civil liberties. And yet that is exactly where I find myself.

Of course children should be protected from harmful content on the television, the internet and other media. But that responsibility rightly rests with the parents, not the broadcasters, ISPs or the state. Every time the government steps in to protect us from any potential harms out there in the world, we are simply stifled by yet another layer of cotton wool, and given the implicit message that it’s okay to glide through life with no regard for the potential consequences of our actions. Many of us may do this at times anyway, and I certainly include myself in that criticism – but my point is that government should not be actively making the shirking of personal responsibility easier by taking on duties of care that used to sit with educated, compassionate and autonomous private citizens.

I would suggest that parents should not be leaving their children unattended to be raised by television and the internet. If parents choose to ignore all common sense and do so, and their child stumbles upon any inappropriate or distressing material as a result, rather than bleating in outrage to the government a personal reexamination of parenting abilities is required.

David Cameron might think that his government’s time is best spent peeping over our shoulders and tutting at the things we choose to watch online under the justification of “keeping our children safe”, but I can assure him that nearly four years of mystifying underperformance in No. 10 Downing Street quite clearly say otherwise.

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2 thoughts on “On Paternalism and Porn Filters

  1. thelyniezian January 13, 2014 / 12:45 AM

    If this is true, would you suggest the same thing is true for films and video recordings- that there should be no statutory ratings system and censorship of such and it be left to self-regulation like the MPAA in the States? Frankly I don’t see what the Government proposes for the internet as being too dissimilar- the filters are supposed to be essentially opt-in anyway which allows parents to decide to block according to the scheme, or not. It is probably just as easy for kids to get hold of their parents’ or older relatives’ collection of porn or 18 rated DVDs as it is for them to bypass internet filters.

    Also, my personal philosophy is that all law and regulation is essentially the enforcement of a shared set of moral values- in which case there is nothing wrong with government at least having some say in things, as long as it is democratic and permits reasonable freedom of choice and expression. I do not see quite how this is going too far, except any attempt to filter the internet or control it is difficult at best, and no filtering software is perfect (too many false positives and things they just let through). Short of having our own national version of the internet which is easy to police (and the only nation to do that is *North Korea*, which tells us all we need to know), regulation of content server-side is also hard.

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    • Semi-Partisan Sam January 13, 2014 / 1:13 AM

      Hmm, that’s a very interesting comparison… It is not something that I have given any thought to previously, but yes, my first instinct would be toward self-regulation along the lines of the MPAA. I suppose my objection to the Cameron Filter really comes down to three things: 1) the fact that perfectly innocuous (and often extremely helpful) websites will be misidentified and caught up in the block, and 2) whenever you have to “opt in” to something, a list is effectively created. The list of people opted in or out may be maintained by the ISPs, but given the nature of our security services and the government’s shamelessness when it comes to doing things behind our back, this list could be used for any purpose without our consent. The third is that by taking on this responsibility, we as citizens are encouraged to yield up ever more personal responsibility, and to come to see the government as being responsible for protecting us and our children from anything bad out there. If David Cameron is making it his personal mission to ensure that my child is not able to accidentally stumble upon inappropriate content while surfing the internet, I have one more reason to let TV and the internet raise my child for me.

      I like your definition of the nature of law and regulation, and I subscribe to your philosophy to a large extent. My concern, though, is always the marginal case, or the people who fall into the minority. If democratic government has a say in helping to enforce our shared set of moral values, we need to be careful about protecting dissenters from the tyranny of the majority, who may frown on certain activities which they may disapprove of, but which they are not personally harmed by. Topical issues such as gay marriage would fall into this category, I think.

      My brain is firing on half cylinders this evening so I may not be making a lot of sense, but I suppose my personal philosophy would be that just as the government should have no say in deciding who can and cannot be married by a priest, minister, rabbi or imam (leaving those decisions entirely to the religious organisations), neither should they control what people choose to watch or have access to by way of entertainment. And nor should the government be in the position of throwing up roadblocks or speedbumps to make it harder for people to exercise their free will.

      Of course, all my points are entirely academic, as sadly we live in a country where our rights are bestowed upon us or taken away by the government, rather than the government being empowered only to the extent that we consent as citizens. Given this unfortunate starting place, I suppose I should be grateful to David Cameron for being able to type these words and hit “reply”.

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