Protecting Children, Enslaving Adults:
Latest Case Study
By Sean Gabb
I have just heard about the existence of the Authority for Television On Demand (Atvod). This is yet another of those “independent” bodies that exercise powers of compulsion delegated by the British State. Its powers derive from the Communications Act 2003, and allow it to regulate the market in streaming video. Its latest act has been to announce that large numbers of children – which it seems to define as persons under the age of eighteen – are watching pornographic videos on the Internet. To deal with this alleged problem, it wants a law to stop British banks from handling payments to any pornographic video site, anywhere in the world, that does not check the age of all its visitors.
At the moment, British sex sites are required to check the age of their visitors, whether or not they buy anything, and to make their records available to the authorities. Because they are outside the jurisdiction, foreign sites cannot be directly forced to do the same. But the British market is large, and Atvod hopes that blocking payment to foreign sex sites, unless they comply, will close this loophole. Every act of watching a pornographic video, free or paid, will then be on the record.
Now, before discussing the merits of this law, I need to state my general belief about children and sex. We live in a country where debate has become largely a matter of smears and synthetic outrage. If I do not make myself clear at the outset, I have no doubt I shall be accused of arguing for the legalisation of sex with children or of child pornography, or of holding some other opinion that may get my windows broken. I say, then, I do believe in the principle of an age of consent, and see no great injustice in setting it at sixteen. It should be illegal for adults to have sex with persons under the age of consent. It should, by extension, be illegal to use persons under the age of consent for making clearly sexual video and photographic images. I believe that such laws should be proportionate to the offence committed, and do not like the hysterical manner in which the laws we have are enforced. But these are details. I have no objection to the principle of an age of consent.
This being said, I turn to the matter of why the proposed new law should not be made. I will not take issue with the statistics that Atvod has published. I have no doubt that, as with all other factual claims made to justify even more government than we have – alleged anthropogenic climate change, foreign policy threats, domestic terrorism threats, anything about smoking or drinking and health, and so forth – these are falsehoods, liable to fall apart the moment the raw data is produced. But, since this is now an overwhelmingly reasonable presumption, I will not bother to examine the claims. Instead, I can think of three arguments.
First, the law would not put off any young person of reasonable intelligence. So long as no money left an account, how would any parent know that his credit card details had been borrowed to establish a false identity? Otherwise, many streaming video sites are entirely free, or accept payment only in Bitcoin or other currencies that do not pass through the British banking system. I do not believe any reasonably intelligent and reasonably lustful sixteen year old can be put off watching his favourite porn by any scheme short of permanent webcam surveillance of his crotch.
Second, it is not the business of the State to control the non-aggressive acts of children. That is a matter for parents. They should decide what their children are allowed to watch or do. This should not be seen as an outrageous or even a novel claim. Before the Children and Young Persons Act 1933, there was no law to stop children from buying cigarettes. I do not believe the law was generally enforced until the 1980s. When I was a small boy in the 1960s, I was able to buy cigarettes for my parents. Only once was I ever refused. As a teenager in the 1970s, I was able to buy cigarettes in bulk for my grandmother, and was never refused. It might have been different had the seller believed I was buying for myself. But the general view was still that this was a matter for parental discipline.
Third, bearing in mind it cannot be enforced, the law is really meant to control adults. One of the less pleasant results of the IT revolution has been the rise of soft authoritarianism. Increasingly, acts and products are not banned. Instead, we are watched as we go about our business. And to be watched is to be controlled. For example, I was an intermittent smoker between 1993 and 1998, and again between 2001 and 2010. What if I had been required to prove identity before buying cigarettes? What if my purchase records had been made available to insurance companies and the NHS? The answer is plain. I would not have bought any cigarettes.
This is the intention of the proposed law on pornographic video. Hardly anyone likes to admit to masturbating. Almost no one likes to say what he watches while masturbating. Having to prove identity before watching something would, for many people, have the same effect as an outright ban. The problem with an outright ban is that enforcement has to go before a jury, and juries will not usually convict for anything unless it involves children or animals or considerable violence. It also looks bad. Our modern rulers are squeamish about censorship laws. Where possible, they like to censor at one or more removes. Forcing people to identify themselves – “for the sake of the children” – is the perfect cover for stopping adults from masturbating at home.
Before ending this brief condemnation, I feel obliged to discuss one issue arising. I insist that it is up to parents to decide how their children behave. This covers what they do or watch at home. But do I really believe that there should be no law to stop a shopkeeper from selling hard core pornography to a ten year old? That does seem a reasonable inference from what I have just said about cigarettes. I could evade the question by talking about the pressure of public opinion in a genuinely free society – how this would force shopkeepers into a voluntary code. But this is an evasion. We do not live in a genuinely free society, and are unlikely ever to do so. Even if we did, there would still be unscrupulous shopkeepers. So my answer is that I probably do believe in such laws. Perhaps it should be illegal to sell certain items to persons who look below a certain age. These items would include guns, drugs – including alcohol and tobacco – and anything to do with sex.
But this is not an admission that should be stretched to cover what adults do on the Internet. This means that many children will be able to do things on-line that they cannot do face to face. But we do not live in a perfect world, and most schemes of perfection will only make things worse than they are. Children should not be able to buy or do certain things face to face. Extending this ban to cover on-line activities will probably be ineffective, and will unreasonably constrain the freedom of adults.
In closing, then, I denounce the Atvod proposal, and call on the relevant politicians to reject it.