30/07/2013 10 Comments
In this post I am temporarily moving away from my specialist subject of economics and talking about porn. Porn is definitely not my specialist subject – honest, Guv.
Anyway. Deborah Orr makes a well-reasoned argument in favour of the government’s plan to clamp down on the accessibility of internet porn. That plan is to make Internet Service Providers (ISPs) block online pornography from all UK households, unless those households choose to contact their ISPs and ask for it.
In general, I agree with what Deborah is saying. For example, I don’t see how such a policy infringes anyone’s civil liberties, since they can easily choose to opt in. Yes, I agree the filters will occasionally block non-pornographic sites but that doesn’t seem like an insurmountable problem and I don’t really understand why those people who choose to access porn would have a problem asking their ISP to activate it. After all, just because you’ve been doing it without having to ask before, it’s not like your ISP doesn’t know you’ve been doing it and it’s not like they’re now going to phone up your mum and tell her.
Regarding the “Page 3 of The Sun” angle, I suppose I had always had a dream that page 3 would get consigned to the dustbin of time through the will of the people. It hasn’t yet and although I am sure it would in time, I have no problem with it being banned by the government now. Either way, I don’t see why that would need to be part of the same legislation that asked people to have to “opt in” to see online porn.
There are however, a couple of points that no one seems to have mentioned yet so I thought I’d mention them myself…
Imagine I’m living in my dream house and then someone builds a main road that passes close to it. That main road might have a big benefit to lots of people. Jobs might be created, commuting time might be reduced etc. I however, need to fit double-glazing in order to keep out the noise of the traffic. That’s a direct cost to me and I might receive no benefit at all.
Now replace the main road with internet porn and replace double-glazing with porn-filters. At the moment if I were a parent, worried about what my child might see online, I might decide to pay for my own software to filter it out. I would have to pay some money because of something than only benefits other people.
A “negative externality” is a term used by economists to describe a situation in which people who receive no benefit from something get hit by part of the costs for it. A main road through your town causing you noise pollution or a drop in the value of your home, a power station that sends pollutants through your windows – these are all negative externalities you receive in order for other people to receive the benefits.
Online pornography is an example of a “negative externality”: We have demand in our society for porn – I have no issue with that. However, because of that demand we have costs passed on to those who do not want porn. That cost might be paying for expensive software to filter out the porn or the cost might be having children exposed to porn. Either way, these things are negative externalities and the proposed government legislation gives us a way of getting rid of them.
When the ISPs introduce filters it will cost them money up front and it will cost them money in maintenance afterwards. For example, the filters will often mistakenly block non-pornographic sites. The ISPs will therefore need to have a team of people taking calls and checking content of the disputed pages, then deciding whether or not to allow broader access to them. The costs of this service will be passed on to the consumers, so monthly charges will be higher under this scheme than they would otherwise be.
If this cost is passed on to those opting in rather than those not opting in then this is a good policy – the negative externality has been addressed – that is, the cost of the benefit had been distributed among those who receive it.
Ok. On to my second point.
My second concern is perhaps more important. You might remember a recent post where I talked about a study looking at the benefits of wearing a helmet when riding a bicycle. For cyclists wearing a helmet there were two competing factors:
- If you had an accident in which you hit your head you were more likely to walk away without serious injury
- If you wear a helmet you might become less concerned about the risks of having an accident and therefore more likely to have an accident
The study did show that the first factor was dominant and that wearing a helmet was sensible but it also suggested that some cyclists with helmets had had accidents that they otherwise would not have had.
This is my main concern with the proposed legislation. The government is trumpeting this legislation as protecting our children when they are online but in doing so they risk giving parents false-comfort. The internet is not dangerous to children purely because of pornography. Such filters will not prevent children accessing chatrooms and becoming friends with people who are not who they say they are etc. etc.
So my message to the government: By all means bring in the legislation but make sure you couple it with clear guidelines for the parents of the children you are trying to protect. With or without this legislation, parents need to know exactly what their children are looking at online and who they might be talking to. Without that education, this legislation could create harm as well as prevent it.
This policy could be a good one as long as we understand that it is not a solution – merely a step in the right direction.