Cen­sor­ing our­selves

Cen­sor­ing web im­ages of child abuse is a start, but the In­ter­net’s fail­ings – the abuse, the hate, the rant­ing – are hu­man­ity’s fail­ings, and must be tack­led face to face.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - INSIGHT - By JACKIE ASH­LEY

tHERE’S 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 democra­tise en­ter­tain­ment and give po­lit­i­cal ac­tivists all the in­for­ma­tion they had strug­gled to get be­fore.

And now? It’s all about preda­tory pae­dophiles and panic over the sex­u­al­i­sa­tion of chil­dren. Has there ever been as fast a shriv­el­ling? 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 wasn’t all wrong. And if we merely fo­cus on taming, cen­sor­ing and polic­ing the In­ter­net, we will lose that orig­i­nal democratis­ing vi­sion.

The “slip­pery slope” ar­gu­ment of the anti-cen­sor­ship lobby isn’t sim­ply self-serv­ing. Ban nasty im­ages of chil­dren, cer­tainly. Then why not ban vi­o­lent and de­grad­ing im­ages of adults too – sado-masochis­tic 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 civil­i­sa­tion? 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. Crack­down 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 isn’t in dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy. It’s in what we have be­come.

So would I take no steps to­wards In­ter­net cen­sor­ship? Philo­soph­i­cally, we can, I think, put pae­dophilia and child sex­u­al­i­sa­tion 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 self­con­scious ac­tors in the In­ter­net world.

Even here, how­ever, the re­duc­tion of what’s hap­pen­ing to the ques­tion of “im­ages” ought to make us feel a lit­tle queasy. If it was just im­ages, com­put­er­gen­er­ated 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 isn’t 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 web­sites, fewer chil­dren would be seized and abused in front of cam­eras. Yet it isn’t “the an­swer”.

The real an­swer lies in more po­lice re­sources around the world fo­cused on the ex­ploita­tion of chil­dren. In Bri­tain, 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.

But 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 will turn out, like al­most all men, to live among moth­ers, sis­ters, daugh­ters ... And they won’t en­joy owning up to their be­hav­iour any more than your av­er­age Co-op Bank boss en­joys owning up to his crys­tal meth use.

Here is the larger point. The In­ter­net isn’t a vir­tual or ab­stract con­struc­tion, even if it some­times feels that way. It is us, con­tem­po­rary hu­man­ity. The In­ter­net’s fail­ings – its hy­per-sex­u­al­i­sa­tion, its propen­sity to hate, its rant­ing – are our fail­ings. And 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 be­hav­iour.

Anonymity is the great en­emy be­cause it al­lows peo­ple to hide from their bet­ter selves. If we want to put the squeeze on pae­dophilia, 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. – Guardian News & Me­dia

Ex­ploita­tive sex­ual cul­ture: Terre des Hommes, a dutch or­gan­i­sa­tion work­ing to com­bat child pros­ti­tu­tion in South-east asia, used a com­puter-gen­er­ated im­age of a 10year-old girl from the Philip­pines to track down pae­dophiles. The wall is plas­tered with pic­tures of men sus­pected of so­lic­it­ing for we­b­cam sex. – aP

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