David Cameron channels Stephen Conroy

Why do they do it? What on earth are they thinking? How can politicians keep on making, not just stupid decisions but the same stupid decisions, over and over again?

In case you missed (it may very well have been deliberately timed to be swamped by royal baby news), British prime minister David Cameron has announced a grand plan for internet censorship along the same lines as that proposed (and later dropped) by Stephen Conroy in Australia. All internet providers are to be forced to provide a “clean feed” to households; customers who want to be able to view “offensive” (but perfectly legal) content will need to opt in – that is, go on the record telling their provider that they want to receive pornography.

No, it won’t happen, for much the same reasons as Conroy’s plan never got off the ground. It’s woefully impractical, designed by and for politicians whose technical literacy is minimal at best; the service providers will point out the technical difficulties and the not insignificant fact that it would be ridiculously easy to circumvent; and MPs will soon discover that forcing their porn-consuming constituents to out themselves is electoral poison.

To get some idea of the Australian background, have a read of what I wrote in early 2006, when Kim Beazley first floated the idea, and again later that year, when Conroy nailed his colors to the mast. By the time Labor won government the following year the filter plan was clearly in trouble, and it was eventually re-envisioned as a blacklist confined to illegal materials – which in turn was watered down further when its practical problems became obvious.

Perhaps there was a small window of opportunity, about a decade ago, when the campaign to delegitimise porn had a chance of success. If there was, it’s now well and truly shut.

Two things have happened since then. Firstly, broadband has become ubiquitous, so that the masses across the developed world have had a chance to see what all the fuss is about and discovered it’s really about nothing. Secondly, the porn business has fallen victim to the same economic logic attacking every other mass content business: it’s become increasingly difficult to make money at and is therefore well on the way to being dominated by keen amateurs who provide free or near-free content – and whose tastes are almost inevitably more mainstream.

It doesn’t stop the fundamentalist lobbyists, of course. Today the eminently predictable Australian Christian Lobby has called for the Conroy plan to be reactivated here, saying “The default setting at ISP level means children are protected but if adults want to view that material, they can opt in. That’s perfectly reasonable.”

But even leaving aside the point that the factual claim just isn’t true (children are a lot more likely to be able to configure a VPN than their parents), the conclusion would only make sense to someone who already believed that porn for adults was illegitimate or morally reprehensible. That position, however, is way out of line with community standards.

So what explains the strange resistance to facts, logic and the lessons of experience? Did anyone in the Tory Party even look at what happened to the Conroy plan?

Many political differences are complex and genuinely debatable. People disagree because there are factual questions where the evidence is not clear, or because different values lead to different conclusions from the same evidence.

But there are other cases – of which this, it seems to me, is one – where it’s really hard to get inside the heads of the proponents of one side of the question. In order to support the internet filter, or drug prohibition, or rent control, you have to not just hold a certain set of values, you have to be willing to spend public money based on those values even on measures that will be completely ineffective.

Or, of course, you just have to be a politician spooked by lobbyists who mislead the public in order to win a symbolic affirmation of their position, regardless of whether or not it makes sense.


Postscript: I should also have drawn attention to a very good analysis of the plan by Janan Ganesh at the Financial Times, who remarks that “Running through it all was the idea that passion to do right matters more than  public-policy rigour. Ministers mean well but there are uncontacted tribes in Papua New Guinea with a better grasp of how the internet works.”


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