There is something very sad about what has happened to the Internet, and how we discuss it. Remember, not long ago, when this was a cornucopia of democratic wonders, a new way of bringing the best information and entertainment to the billions. It was going to usher in a new enlightenment, break open the old structures of universities and tycoon-driven media empires. It was going to democratize entertainment and give political activists all the information they had struggled to get before.
And now? It’s all about predatory pedophiles and panic over the sexualization of children. Has there ever been as fast a shriveling? What does it say about Western humanity in the 21st century?
Following the victory of politicians and newspapers over the search engines, which resulted in Google and Microsoft agreeing to new curbs on child pornography, it’s worth remembering that earlier, optimistic vision. Because it was not all wrong. And if we merely focus on taming, censoring and policing the Internet, we will lose that original democratizing vision.
The “slippery slope” argument of the anti-censorship lobby is not simply self-serving. Ban nasty images of children, certainly. Then why not ban violent and degrading images of adults too — sadomasochistic torture, terrorist beheadings and the like? It’s possible to download tips on making explosives, and home-made weapons: Should that be allowed? What about easily accessible jihadist propaganda? If the search engines and others can be persuaded to make such things inaccessible, might not that be an advance for civilization? But what about the anarchist revolutionary groups? And downloading illegal copies of films and music — which has a devastating effect on the economics of the entertainment industry. Crack down there too, please.
Every step can seem to make sense. But take them one after another, and the dream of a free, unpoliced version of human consciousness washing around the globe vanishes. Perhaps it should. Perhaps we can’t afford it. Perhaps the mirror it holds up to our nastier selves is too horrific. If so, however, the fault is not in digital technology. It’s in what we have become.
So would I take no steps toward Internet censorship? Philosophically, we can, I think, put pedophilia and child sexualization in a different category from everything else. Here, we are talking about victims who are being acted upon, with no rights or autonomy of their own. Immature and powerless, they are prey rather than self-conscious actors in the Internet world.
Even here, however, the reduction of what is happening to the question of “images” ought to make us feel a little queasy. If it was just images, computer-generated fictions, that would be one thing. But out there, from the housing estates of England to suburban America and across eastern Europe, children are being posed, raped and beaten. This is not about “images.” It’s about screaming human beings — daughters and sons, sisters and brothers.
That is surely where the focus has to be. Not every sad man who downloads unacceptable images is then going to attack a child. There is thankfully a huge gap between the fantasy world of pornography and the real world. But pictures of children being abused surely have some kind of corrupting influence — and presumably, without the profits generated by Web sites, fewer children would be seized and abused in front of cameras. Yet it is not “the answer.”
The real answer lies in more police resources around the world focused on the exploitation of children. In the UK the number of child sex abuse cases being sent for prosecution has dropped by nearly a third over the past two years, despite the number of reports going up. We also need a more informed understanding of the limits of popular search engines such as Google. Because what will happen now is that more and more of the really hardcore stuff will drift downwards into the “dark web” where the predators feel safe.
One piece of recent good news is that the dark web is having light thrown on to it. A site for exchanging drugs — Silk Road, which dealers and users believed was completely secure — has recently been closed down.
However, the bigger and better answer is to fight back in the real world against our exploitative and deeply sexist sexual culture. The Internet, as all women commentators know, is rancid with idiot sexism and braying misogyny. Rather than calling for censorship, by far the best answer is more publicity — the identification and outing of the cowardly trolls, so we know their names, faces and what they do. Why does this matter? Because they would turn out, like almost all men, to live among mothers, sisters, daughters, and they would not enjoy owning up to their behavior any more than your average Co-op Bank boss enjoys owning up to his crystal meth use.
Here is the larger point. The Internet is not a virtual or abstract construction, even if it sometimes feels that way. It is us, contemporary humanity. The Internet’s failings — its hyper-sexualization, its propensity to hate, its ranting — are our failings. The only way to confront our failings is face to face, in the real world, having honest arguments and disagreements about the acceptable limits of human behavior.
Anonymity is the great enemy because it allows people to hide from their better selves. If we want to put the squeeze on pedophilia, we have to fund the social workers who go into vulnerable families. These are things that happen in the real world, to real people; they have little to do with “images.”
To confront the sexism of the Internet world, we have to identify and talk to real men, born of women, and living among women, rather than respond to someone who calls themselves “Hairy Weetabix 99” or whatever. When we start to do that, we can get back, perhaps, to that wide and generous dream of a world wide web of information and the serious exchange of views.