On Monday 23rd September, at a Demos fringe meeting on “Privacy, liberty and security: How will Labour tackle terror?” David Blunkett talked about pornography.
Conservatives propose that there should be a default ban on accessing sites that your Internet provider thinks may contain porn. Labour supports this default ban. David Blunkett spoke in favour of it:
“In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Berlin came as near as dammit to Sodom and Gomorrah. There was a disintegration of what you might call any kind of social order.
“People fed on that – they fed people’s fears of it. They encouraged their paranoia. They developed hate about people who had differences, who were minorities.
“There always has had to be some balance, in terms of the freedom of what we want to do, for ourselves and the mutual respect and the duty we owe to each other in a collective society. I think getting it right is the strength of a democracy.”
Let’s be clear what this ban would mean.
First of all, of course, it would not mean that people didn’t access pornography online. Where the audience is searching and the providers are offering, no ban will ever be successful. Any ban that can be put in place on the Internet can also be circumvented. That’s just a fact.
Equally, of course, a default ban will ensure that many sites which do not contain pornography will be blocked. That’s what default bans do. Websites have been blocked as porn sites because filters searching for pornographic words found breasts, lesbians, and transsexual: breast cancer sites, LGBT websites of any description, and specifically sites about trans* people or lesbian/bi women.
There are arguments that can be made both for and against pornography. None of them are valid for all pornography. Neither reason nor technical capacity support a default ban.
This is the “Sodom and Gomorrah” that David Blunkett condemns, that grew in Berlin and other German cities after the German defeat in WWI:
Inflation soared. Millions were unemployed. Poverty stained the cities of a once proud and militant nation. The devastation of the war caused the German people to reexamine their national values, including sexual values. Greater tolerance emerged for sexual variations and expression and it was during the 1920s that mainstream Gay life came out of the closet, out of the shadows of fear. No longer was Gay society limited to the intellectual elite. Gay bars and clubs opened in major German cities, creating coherent Gay neighborhoods. The numbers of Gay male periodicals soared.
Historian Frank Rector estimates that there were more Gay bars and periodicals in 1920 Berlin, the capital of Gay Germany, than there were in 1980 New York. The infamous Paragraph 175 remained in the penal code, but many police were reluctant to enforce it in the larger cities.
In his 1931 novel Fabian, Erich Kästner, today mostly known as the author of children’s books Emil and the Detectives and Lotte and Lisa
did indeed describe quick sex, casual sex and lesbian sex, in addition to love bought and sold, desire and suicide, unfaithful spouses, the tender juggernaut of modernity, newspaper editorial offices full of opportunists, dance halls full of lunatics, and a city filled with beggars, brothels and chaos.
It wasn’t quite the Nazis’ cup of tea.
The right to a free press does not say that people may not be penalised for what they publish. Nor is it a special privilege of accredited journalists. The press is the means of production – Twitter, WordPress, Blogger, Facebook, the Internet itself. That a story or a photograph is intended to provoke sexual arousal may be addictive but isn’t wrong in itself unless you think that sexual arousal is wrong in itself.
What one person chooses to view on the Internet may not be another person’s cup of tea. But so long as no one is harmed in its production (and I mean direct verifiable harm, not “harm” theorised from anti-porn principles) then it’s really not the government’s business to stop them drinking their tea the way they want it. Certainly the theoretical harm supposedly and unverifiably caused by all pornography is not sufficient to justify the definite and verifiable harm done to a free press by banning a swathe of websites from ordinary access, knowing as we do that a significant fraction of the banned sites won’t be pornographic and that there is no way to prevent people who want to access pornography over the Internet from doing so. Prohibition merely ensures extreme deregulation.
Like David Blunkett, the post-1933 German government blamed sexual moral laxity for inethical government:
The success and openness of German Gays during the 1920s ultimately hurt them. The Berlin that was synonymous with Gay culture was the same city that was synonymous with government corruption and ineptitude. The German people began to look for scapegoats for the ills that had befallen their nation. The Jews and Gays of Berlin were easy targets.
It’s always easier to make scapegoats than to make things better.