September 20, 2004

Censorship and Internet Porn

Ed Felten is blogging today on obscenity laws and the possibility of regulating online pornography, and in particular access to it by children. This is a difficult issue for me, as I often find myself, in the ordinary course of living my life, watching television, using the Internet, accidentally exposed to content I find offensive, despite making an active attempt to avoid it. However, as a libertarian, I generally oppose government censorship, and don't trust the government (or myself) to distinguish pornography from art correctly 100% of the time, and I wouldn't want any true art permanently destroyed because of anti-pornography legislation. I also wouldn't want such legislation to result in the government monitoring the communications of private citizens, or artists of any variety having to clear their work with the government before publishing. I do, however, have some idea as to how to reconcile these issues to one another.

First, what is art, and what is pornography? Are the two mutually exclusive? These are, at core, philosophical questions, and the definition of art is something that has been debated by philosophers for centuries. The debate usually involves a technical definition of the word "genius". Genius, in this context, is the ability to create art. Because it is not my purpose in this entry to argue for a particular theory of art, I will merely state mine briefly, with no justification: Art is the product of genius. Genius is the drive to create. What this means is that the "genius" is driven to create something, and the drive is its own motivation, such that he would create even if there were no other pleasure of benefit to be derived from the creation of his art.

This definition, of course, excludes much of popular music, movies, and television, because these are often created for profit by people who would otherwise feel no urge to create them.

Pornography, by contrast, is created for the purpose of sexual arousal. Any image, verbal description, or whatever, that a person looks to for the purpose of sexual gratification is to that person pornographic. Of course, it may not have been created for that purpose, and it may not have this effect on everyone. In a perfect system, where the government was run by perfect people, I wouldn't see the need for First Amendment protection of truly pornographic works. However, we live under an imperfect system, run by politicians (read: idiots), and I don't trust them to correctly distinguish between art and pronography, as I have already said. As a result of this, I must oppose the idea of completely eliminating pornographic content.

This doesn't solve anything. I still don't want to see it, and if some day I have children, I imagine I won't want them to see it either. One of Professor Felten's readers, Roland Smith, pointed out that protecting children from offensive content is the job of parents. I couldn't agree more. Essentially then, I don't want pornography to be censored completely, but I demand that individuals have the ability to voluntarily censor themselves and their children. How can this be implemented without a bunch of ridiculous overhead and government intervention?

The answer is simple, really: Civil liability. Let's make a law that says that if I view or listen to some work (movie, web-site, song, etc.) and it contains something I deem offensive, and I had a reasonable expectation that I was not going to contain that sort of thing, the content provider should have civil liability; after all, he has essentially infringed on my rights by deceiving me into viewing some content I did not wish to view (and probably paying for it, too!). How will the movie/recording/video game/television/etc. industries shield themselves from ridiculous lawsuits under this system? Easy. They'll just have to create rating systems that are based on actual empirical measurements, and publish how those measurements are made. There are already movie review sites that do things like this. For instance, they count the number of minor and major obscenities (having an established list of which fall into which category) and give the movie a profanity rating. The current movie and television rating systems are ridiculous and don't actually measure the offensive content. Movies frequently intentionally seek R ratings to appeal to older audiences, and sometimes end up getting them despite the fact that some PG-13 movies contain more offensive content (The Last Samurai, though violent, is an excellent example of an R-rated movie whose content fails to justify its rating).

Anyway, that's what I have to say on the subject. Thanks for reading.

Posted by Kenny at September 20, 2004 3:04 PM
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