Let's all contact the abusers - people who place sexually explicit content on public Web pages or in Usenet groups

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The holidays, already! It's as if my life is moving in Web time!

Web time moves fast because the Net is a low-resistance medium. It's easy to be productive from the comfort of my desk at home, without even disturbing the small gray cat who often sleeps on my monitor while I write, or the Australian Shepherd who rides herd on the denizens of the Gulker domain. Getting up causes a small riot of pets hopeful for a walk or treat.

While the animals amuse me greatly, there is a certain burden associated with their presence. They're both helpful types who do a good job of getting their noses into whatever I'm up to. Disentangling dog and cat from my affairs (and, occasionally, from each other) means there is a small additional resistance to any undertaking under my roof. This resistance can be thought of as "friction".

Bill Gates has described the Net as "friction-free", meaning that commerce can proceed very efficiently in this medium. Esther Dyson, in her (recommended) book, Release 2.0, notes that friction is beneficial in some ways:

"Friction keeps neighbourhood gossip from following a person from one town to another. Friction keeps junk mail from overwhelming us, and it keeps most of the people we don't want to see out of our lives. It keeps cultures localised and it keeps people attached to their reputations."

Another interesting idea is that of norms versus laws, as outlined in a New Yorker article by Jeffrey Rosen, recounting work by Tracey Meares, and others at the University of Chicago.

Rosen recalls how residents of a low-income Chicago neighbourhood reduced drug trafficking. Community members, thousands strong, began evening prayer vigils where they approached street drug sellers and prayed for their souls. Chastened and surprised by the outreach, many drug dealers reduced or stopped their trade. The police were surprised, too, that the "evil" drug sellers could be so moved by mere social expression.

The community's activism was a way of expressing acceptable norms, and was far more effective than even the most draconian drug laws. The drug dealers weren't concerned nearly as much about the law as they were about their social standing.

These concepts might be usefully applied to the dicey problem of curbing rampant pornography on the Internet without curbing free speech as well. Sexual expression, having turned up in every new medium starting with cave paintings, has not been absent from the Net.

The brain is not a computer, it's an organ that depends on people having sex if it's to replicate and ultimately survive. The planet's population attests to the brain's success in keeping people interested in sex, so no big surprise that our media reflect this.

The porn industry has grown up around this particular proclivity, as breweries and tobacco companies have prospered on other "features" of the human nervous system.

And like breweries and tobacco industries, the pornography industry creates a social cost. Children and young people are exploited by this industry, as are people with sexual addictions. Wrecked lives mean lost productivity and expensive social remediation programs. I think it's just fine if social friction limits this toll.

Porn has exploded on the Internet at least in part because of the low friction. People who would never dream of being seen in a seedy porno parlour will browse news groups and Web sites cloaked in the perceived anonymity of the Net.

I'm not particularly bothered by adults choosing to view erotic-themed matter, but concern is due over the social harm that would increase if the pornography industry were to grow - society is already left with steep bills for alcohol and tobacco use.

But the lack of friction on the Net means it will be easy for pornography to be placed in front of the impressionable, namely children. Pornographers, just like alcohol and tobacco companies, benefit if children are introduced to their products and become lifelong consumers.

So I'm all for appropriate friction that contains porn and any other industry which has a relatively high social cost, the problem being, what would that be?

It's certainly not efforts like America's Communications Decency Act, or other attempts to legislate censorship. The CDA would increase abuses of free speech, not reduce them, and anyway, there are already strict laws against exploiting children through pornography.

The answer, I think, lies in the norms. Let's all of us who use the Net just make it very clear that we will not tolerate people who post pornography where children can get to it. One way might be to make it a norm that all pornography be encrypted. Only upon proof of age would a viewer be granted a key. Non-encrypted content would be immediately obvious, and easy to respond to.

And like the Chicagoans, let's do it as a community: let's all contact the abusers - people who place sexually explicit content on public Web pages or in Usenet groups.

This wouldn't be a flood of hate mail, or a denial of service attack: this would be concerned Netizens each taking a moment to write the perpetrators, asking for them to comply to the norms of the Net. This would likely be self-regulatory: minor abuses would bring fewer responses than egregious ones.

Pornographers and other social-cost industries are often quick to comply to social pressure - they don't want the problems, like law suits and increased police scrutiny, that come with it.