On the Petition to Require ISPs to Make Pornography an “Opt-In” Feature

The petition
The petition

There is a petition making its way around the internet (powered mostly by LDS zeal, as far as I can tell), that as of the time of this writing has nearly 50,000 signatures. It calls for the government to “Require Porn to be an ‘Opt In’ feature with Internet Service Providers rather than a standard feature.”

I am disappointed, though not particularly surprised, that so many LDS people have signed and/or endorsed the petition. It is understandable why they might do this; porn is bad and they want to keep the bad things away from themselves and their families.

The main problem with the petition it is that almost none of the claims it makes are true.

For example, it claims, “The average person, even children, can type in the word ‘cat’ or ‘home’ or ‘soup’ and instantly be inundated with offensive and disturbing pornographic images.”

cats
Offensive and disturbing pornographic images.

I spent several minutes on Google images trying to find pornographic content using only those search terms. I found nothing pornographic, and the only thing I did find that even so much as resembled pornography in any way was an image of a renaissance painting featuring a nude woman and a cat – certainly not offensive and disturbing pornography. Whoever authored this petition either has not used the internet recently, or is hoping that nobody who reads the petition has (which appears to be the case).

The second false claim is that “Parents and individuals have to go to great lengths to install Internet filters that often don’t weed out all porn.”

Google’s Chrome browser has dozens of extensions for filtering offensive content which can easily be installed and configured within literally a few seconds. Most modern browsers are very similar. Nearly every search-engine has options to turn off offensive content. It’s true that nothing can filter out all offensive content, but this is primarily because people disagree about what is offensive, not because of some failing of the filtering per se. For example, some might find any and all depictions of nudity offensive, although there are legitimate, non-pornographic uses for such images.

The last implied claim is that internet porn isn’t already “opt-in”. For the most part, it is. People don’t find pornographic sites without searching for pornographic sites (with a few exceptions, granted). It’s not as if porn just comes up every time somebody opens a browser. By far the most common method of accessing internet porn is to search for internet porn intentionally.

Where is the Google?
Where is the Google?

These falsehoods aren’t the only problem, though. The government and ISPs would almost certainly not implement this in a satisfactory manner. Those two institutions are perpetually the most hated institutions in society, mostly because of their bad service, which is legendary for being completely, irredeemably awful almost without exception. Witness the utter catastrophe that has been the new healthcare.gov site. Do people really honestly trust those people to implement internet filtering in a satisfactory manner? Do people really think that they are going to produce better results than if each household made the decisions and policies for themselves?

Do people trust the State to determine what is pornographic and/or inappropriate for children? Because this is what this proposal implies – that the State can be trusted to make these decisions, or, if not the State, that ISPs can.

Do people trust their ISP to determine what is appropriate for their children to view?

I have had discussions about this with people on social media, and have heard a couple of objections to the points I made above. The first objection was that a desktop internet browser is hardly the only thing connected to the internet in the home these days. There are TVs, phones, tablets, and on and on. Thus, the market solution of downloadable browser extensions (which may not be available for all devices) are an incomplete solution. This may be true, but how widespread is the problem of accidentally coming across pornography on an internet-connected TV? How about on a smartphone? To answer my own rhetorical questions, the problem is almost non-existent.

The second objection I have heard is what I call the bad economist objection, after Frédéric Bastiat’s description of the bad economist who only takes into account that which is seen, and does not consider that which is not seen. This objection, heard universally whenever new legislation is proposed and usually said with a shrug of the shoulders, is “what could it hurt?”

The answer of course, besides the obvious (that its enforcement would be at the point of a gun if necessary), is that it would be a vastly expensive and superfluous undertaking which would almost certainly not produce satisfactory results, but would serve to enrich ISPs and the politically connected at the expense of the general populace, just as is the case with virtually every government mandated program.

I wonder if any of the people who advocate for this proposal have actually ever experienced any of the problems that it claims to address. For some reason I doubt it.

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The things I like and write about are mormonism, beekeeping, homeschool, and outer space.

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