Throughout the Western world, a charged debate about access to Internet pornography has triggered great concerns about freedoms, sexual and otherwise. Britain, Canada and Iceland are all considering or implementing filters on what people can access through the Internet.
One example of the material that is automatically filtered from the public’s view in the United Kingdom is available at this site, I encourage you to take a look, and see the many categories of information that one will now have to ask permission to see. As one can quickly see, sexuality and pornography sites are only one small piece of what will be filtered. Yes, people have only to contact their Internet Service Provider (ISP), and change that level of filtering. Unless they are under 18. Unless they are accessing the Internet at work. Unless they are afraid of explaining to their spouses, or the ISP, why they feel they need more access. Unless they are concerned about what the ISP, and the government, might one day do with that information. In Germany recently, the courts accidentally released the names of 20,000 German users of pornography. Ooops. But don’t worry, really. “We aren’t going to use this information against you. We’ll keep it safe. Honest.”
The British government and ISPs seem to feel that there is information that is better for people not to have. It seems that they fear that the Internet may offer too much dangerous information to too many people. What started as a pornography filtering plan has grown into far more. Based upon the opt-in, opt-out filtering of Internet sites, it is reasonable to suggest that the proponents of Internet filtering, in Britain, Canada, and even here in the United States, have a certain image in mind, when it comes to the kind of person they want you to be. Freedom of information allows us to develop in our own, self-selected ways. So, when that information is restricted, one must assume that there is a desire to prevent you from developing in those directions. So, let’s look at some of the blocked categories in the Internet filtering in Britain, and see what kind of people they want us to be.
At the baseline filtering level, of course, all pornography is going to be filtered. Because, this is about sex, right? So, of course they want to limit access to sexual material. They have to, it’s the foundation of this whole panic. There are interesting antiquated ideas built in here though, that people can’t be trusted to choose their own sexual stimulation privately, and out of society’s watchful monitoring. Perhaps they think that too much masturbation is bad for a person. It wears them down, reduces their productivity, and makes them weaker on the football field, or at the business table. This should be an interesting experiment, at a large scale. Does interfering with masturbation and private sexual stimulation have larger social effects? Apparently, we shall now see. (Though, the research has been done already – greater porn access correlates with decreased sexual crimes like rape and sexual abuse. Increased controls on accessing porn correlates with increases in the rates of sexual crime.) I’m sad to say that the people of the United Kingdom may need to get out their rape whistles, and attend personal defense classes.
At a more disturbing level to me, is the material that is not sexual in nature, which is automatically blocked at all levels of filtering. It reads like a Rorschach test of the British government’s anxieties about its people. Beyond the sexual restrictions, we can interpret these elements, as projecting what kind of people they want people to be, and the results frankly, are more than a bit frightening, even Orwellian.
Dating sites are automatically blocked at even the lowest levels of filtering. So, Match.com, Okcupid, etc., are all now off-limits. Why is this? Dating sites reflect a modern way to meet people, to find people who share your own values and interests, and to overcome the physical divides built into a world with billions of people.
In historical times, we knew perhaps 500 people, our local village. And, for intimate partners, we chose from that small group, limited to what was available, and not based upon many of our personal desires or needs – you married somebody who was available, you learned to simply accept what you could have, and give up on what you might want. Internet dating sites are one way in which technology has allowed us to overcome those natural barriers, and to find people who share our interests and desires, even the most private ones we wouldn’t necessarily be willing to voice in person in our small village.
Conservative voices and technophobes often argue against dating sites. According to these arguments, Internet dating is unhealthy in some way, encouraging hookups and casual sex; it is somehow “less,” because it is modern and not restricted to the old ways of doing things. But these days, one in three marriages starts through dating sites. One in ten people are using dating sites on a regular basis. Young people, the non-heterosexual, and the technically proficient (read, people who use computers all day) all use dating sites more than other populations. With limited access to dating sites, it appears that more Brits will have to either accept loneliness, or return to the days of dating only those who are immediately available. They can put on the shelf those personal desires for finding someone who shares your interests, and take what you can get, seems to be the message.
"Hate and Self-Harm" is another automatically blocked category, strangely revealing of the British state’s anxiety. This broad category includes information related to suicide and self-harm. Now, many sites intended to educate and prevent suicide will likely be automatically overblocked. But, at a deeper level, the British filtering is saying something here, asserting that thinking about suicide or self-harm is unhealthy, risky, sick, and disturbed. They appear to be working under the premise that if they can restrict a person’s access to information about suicide or self-harm, they can reduce the chances that they’ll do choose suicide, or even think about it.
But, suicide and thoughts of self-destruction existed long, long before the Internet. Loneliness and social isolation are some of the main predictors of suicidal thoughts, and exposing people to information about suicide actually decreases their chances of doing it. One of the most effective interventions for suicide is to help people understand that they are not alone in those thoughts, and that many people, millions each year, also struggle with thoughts of ending it all. Thinking of suicide is normal, when people feel cut off and alone, sad, and hopeless. But now, with such information blocked automatically, it appears that many people in the UK, who struggle with such thoughts, may have to struggle alone. To paraphrase the old prison warden in Cool Hand Luke, “that is the way they want it.” Adovocates for Internet filtering seem to want each of us to struggle alone. Is this a reflection of the old ways of doing things? Suffer in silence, with a stiff upper lip?
From the outside looking in, I will make a humble observation: I believe that the advocates for Internet filtering want people to live the way they did, before the Internet. The current restrictions implemented in the UK suggest that they believe that such ways of life were better, more ethical and safer than modern technological ways. By blocking access to sex, dating, and information about suicide, the British people are doomed to greater loneliness.
The great change that the Internet has wrought is that it allows people to connect in new ways, from around the world, crossing barriers. The disabled, the far from home, the chronically busy, the shy and those who fear that their desires are unique and shameful, are just some of the people who use the Internet to feel connected with others.Before the Internet was widely accessible, many people struggled through life, alone, isolated and hopeless.
The Internet gave many of us hope, and let us feel that we were not alone. Apparently, that’s a dangerous thing, according to the modern British state, and to the many advocates for Internet filtering. It starts with arguments to protect the children, then grows into protecting others from smut and sexual depravity. Quickly, it then slides into a world where people are deciding what’s good or bad for you, what kind of person you should be, and how much information you can be trusted with. In such a world, loneliness is the epidemic, as none of us are allowed to be ourselves.
This article was originally written in support of the British group Sex & Censorship, who are advocating for freedom of expression in the United Kingdom.