Guest post by Jon Seymour

Clive Hamilton does not believe, like the Kantians, that exercising rationality is a virtue.

It shows.

Hamilton does concede that rationality is useful to the extent that it allows one to avoid being manipulated by others against one’s better interests. The unstated corollary of this is that if one wishes to manipulate others against their own better interests, convincing them by rational argument may not always be the best strategy. On the contrary, if one’s aim is to win, and one does not consider that winning fairly is a virtue, moral panic rather than rational argument may well be your weapon of choice.

Clive Hamilton

Clive Hamilton

It is clear Hamilton passionately wants to maintain social controls on the flow of pornography, irrespective of the medium through which it flows. He appears to want to win the political war against porn even if he buries his own reputation as an intellectual on the battle field. For Hamilton, this is a high stakes game indeed.

To the observer, this seems absurd – why would a respected public figure such as Hamilton stake so much of his intellectual reputation on a plan which, if implemented, could not possibly achieve the objectives that have been set for it. This just doesn’t seem to make sense, rationally.

For when measured against the stated objectives – eliminating virtually all access to extreme pornography via the Internet from Australian homes – the plan cannot possibly succeed. People trading extreme pornography on the Internet are already using p2p networks and encrypted tunnels or soon will be. People who don’t seek extreme porn rarely encounter it and those that do seek it will take extreme measures to satisfy their desires – that’s why they are called extremists.

However, to assume that the stated objectives are the actual objectives is to assume too much. What if the actual objectives of this policy are far more modest? Suppose, for example, that one believes that there is a net social benefit to be gained simply by moderating the porn consumption habits of the middle 80% of the population. While a leaky filter would be useless at preventing extremists viewing extreme porn, it could still be quite useful at moderating the porn consumption habits of the middle 80%. To explain why, consider how a leaky filter would work.

Suppose you are an adult who occasionally hits the net in search of a porn fix. Perhaps your particular interest is “South American Dancing Girls”. It is certainly possible that while Googling for a fix you may come across links to material in the more extreme category. Feeling aroused and against your better judgment, perhaps you click through one of the more questionable links, rationalising that a pay-wall will stop you before you get to the seriously sick stuff. However, suppose that instead of delivering a more salacious image, your browser displays the following message:

HTTP 403

Access from blocked at 2008-12-03 00:45:00 GMT according to Schedule XXX of ACMA Act 2009.

If you believe this URL was blocked incorrectly, please e-mail

As a denizen of the middle 80% of Australia do you:

  • contact ACMA at the suggested address
  • fire up Tor and see what was behind the blocked link
  • write a letter to your morning paper and local MP decrying the state of civil liberties in the country and use as an example your recent experience
  • pensively wonder about what law you may have just broken and resolve to be less adventurous the next time you need a porn fix

If you are congenitally stupid, you may do the first. If you are a porn extremist you may do the second. If you are committed to free speech and care not for your mother’s next tea party, you may do the third. However, if you are in the middle 80% of Australians, you will likely do the fourth – moderate your own porn consumption.

And that, like the Chinese filter, is how a technically ineffective filter can be an effective tool for social control; a tool for Silencing Dissent about where the boundaries of acceptable porn usage should lie. If parents really are worried that monitoring their own children’s Internet usage might impinge upon their children’s sense of freedom and responsibility, imagine how they will feel about Big Brother passing judgment on their own?

It seems the Government’s mandatory ISP level filter isn’t targeted at porn extremists – it couldn’t possibly be, because it won’t be effective for that task. Therefore, it seems reasonable to conclude that it is targeted fairly and squarely at middle Australia. Indeed, it may even be somewhat effective at achieving the far more modest objective of moderating most people’s access to Internet porn within tighter limits. It won’t be perfect, but then it doesn’t need to be if your objective isn’t perfection.

Irrespective of whether you believe this more modest social policy objective is a desirable one, Australians should feel outraged that they are being corralled into accepting it by proponents such as Hamilton who are promising a solution “to protect the children”. It won’t and it can’t.

With adults controlled like this, protecting children can wait for another day.

Jon Seymour is a left-libertarian geek who believes that exercising rationality in the pursuit of moral clarity is a virtue. He blogs about this and similar issues at “Broadbanned Revolution – fight the philterphiles that be.”

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