Porn

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.

RedEaredRabbit

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About RedEaredRabbit
My name is RedEaredRabbit, King of Kings. Look on my works ye Mighty and despair.

10 Responses to Porn

  1. Dan Brusca says:

    I run an adult website that, assuming the filters work correctly, will be blocked. From that perspective the filters don’t bother me. Firstly, the majority of my site’s traffic comes from outside the UK. Secondly, people who keep the content filtering in place aren’t my potential customers in the first place.

    My primary concern about the content filtering is that of mission creep. Take the current Cleanfeed system created to block child porn. That has now had its remit extended to block websites hosting illegally copied material and, it is reported, sites that ‘glorify’ terrorism.

    Already the new proposals allow for the blocking of sites related to alcohol and tobacco, web forums and the somewhat nebulous ‘esoteric material’. Given that the new filtering is being introduced without legislation this also means no form of oversight whatsoever.

    My next concern is that it is an invasion of adult privacy. I’m sure there are millions of people up and down the country who surreptitiously view porn without their partners’ knowledge. The morality of whether or not people should do that it nobody’s business but theirs, but here comes the state, blundering in and forcing people to either admit things to their partners they would rather not, or accept an unreasonable restriction on their legal to receive information (outcomes which, in combination, may consitute a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights).

    Finally, the filters will be simple to circumvent via the use of anonymous proxies. While these may be something in the realms of the geeky at present, you can be sure that once the filtering is in place the addresses of anonymous proxies will be spread among kids like wildfire.

    The proposals are dangerous, technically flawed and possibly illegal. They are a poorly thought-through, knee-jerk response when what is required is, as you say, education and close parental supervision.

    • You make a good point about Cleanfeed. The mission creep for this system is particularly troublesome, as access by UK users to the Pirate Bay (for instance) is pretty much only possible via proxy. Many of the users of this site are more than familiar with proxies, and a lot of sites have already popped up demonstrating how to bypass the block. The result? We’ve helped paedophiles access the sites that were blocked in the first place. All they have to do is search for “bypass cleanfeed” or “bypass UK website block” etc.

    • Mission creep is a possibility but there is an important difference between the proposed legislation and Cleanfeed. The new legislation gives people the choice of whether or not they opt-in. If the government starts extending coverage to block other subjects then that would likely just lead to more people opting-in. The success of the legislation is dependent on not blocking access to a lot of other stuff too. If they do, everyone opts in and we’re back where we were.

      On the second point, it isn’t the government preventing the porn-surfer from looking at porn – it’s their partner. If their partner is happy for them to look at porn then they can look at porn. If their partner isn’t then they can’t. It’s a shared internet connection, so why shouldn’t they both have a say in whether or not it is also a hard-core porn portal?

      Lastly, I’m not so sure the typical ten year old will be able to easily circumvent the porn filters with anonymous proxies but even if that were the case, at the very least it would prevent children accessing the material by accident. It would still be better than what we have now.

  2. Richard Lindsay says:

    Why can you not look at negative externality from the flipside? I don’t want filters, I derive no benefit from someone else filtering their internet. If someone wants filters they should get them on their own dime.

    • Thanks for your comment. I call it a negative externality because in the current situation a large proportion of the cost of online porn is borne by people who don’t use it. You are saying the cost of online porn should be borne by those who don’t use it. I don’t agree that’s a sensible way of distributing the costs.

      • R Lindsay says:

        Just because porn exists doesn’t necessitate filtering in the same way that living next to a busy road would pretty much necessitate double glazing, I think I’d find it perfectly possible to browse unfiltered internet and not come across anything that would be (rightly) filtered if I so desired, porn itself is more “opt-in” then road noise is.

        What I’m trying to say is that I don’t think the costs of filtering are linked with the use of porn but are more linked with the desire to have filtered internet. What if nobody in the country wanted to opt-in? These filters would still need paying for.

        Also you’re not just proposing shifting costs onto lovers of porn but also on to people who feel capable of surfing the internet without accidentally stumbling on porn and would rather not put up with the inevitable false positives and other things covered by filters (which if they are anything like mobile filters will include things like gambling)

      • I’m sure you do find it possible to browse the internet without accessing porn. Children can still access it though so I don’t think that really helps.

        If nobody wanted to opt in then we wouldn’t be having the debate – if there were no demand for porn, the problem of porn would not exist.

        I don’t believe I am shifting the costs on to people who feel capable of surfing the internet without stumbling across porn. That’s like saying I am giving a cost to you by guaranteeing a loan that you think you can repay anyway.

        Just opt-in, dude. No one’s judging you.

      • R Lindsay says:

        Children can only access it at the point which an adult gives them access to an internet connected device, the responsibility is on that adult, surely?

        The internet is global, if nobody in the country wanted porn it will still be there in similarly vast quantities and I don’t think asking the rest of the world’s internet users to pay for our filter is going to go down all that well.

        In what sense is it like guaranteeing a loan I can pay anyway? If you do that I’m not out of pocket I only get benefits. The opposite happens if you install a filter and I pay for it, in which case I get costs but no benefits.

        I’m sure plenty of people would be judged for opting-in if it comes to that and names get leaked (Have you SEEN the daily mail?) but I’m not disagreeing with you on if it should be opt-in or opt-out (I do disagree, but I’m not doing so now) all I’m disagreeing about is who should pay for it.

      • Yes, the responsibility is with the parent. That doesn’t mean that system is infallible or some assistance wouldn’t help.

        Yes, the internet is global but the probability of your example arising (there being no demand for porn in the UK but demand for porn everywhere else) is low enough that it would be daft to form legislation based on it.

        Regarding the loan analogy, you say that if I do that you are not out of pocket and you only get the benefits. That is exactly the current situation with porn. You receive all of the benefits of freely available porn but have none of the costs.

      • R Lindsay says:

        Freely available porn on the internet is the status quo (and to my mind a god-given right as is access to pretty much all information that someone “owns” and wants to share), the fact some people want to attempt to filter it is neither here nor there, a filter is not a necessary outcome of porn existing and you’d require me to pay even if instead of porn I just wanted unfiltered access to avoid the non-porn sites that will inevitably be included, either by design or as false positives.

        How much “help” should people be required to pay for? If the government decided that instead of a filter anyone who didn’t opt-in would have every web request examined for suitability by a human would you expect the opt-ins to pay for the massive expense for that as well?

        I think there being no demand for internet porn in the UK would be largely based on the cost of the filter per person but my point was that opt-ins didn’t put it there and if they disappeared the problem would still be there, they are not to “blame”. Although I understand you’re looking at it from more of a cost/benefit point of view.

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