One man's view of theology, sports, politics, and whatever else in life that happens to interest me. A little bit about me.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Can't We Be Anti-Porn AND Anti-Censorship?

Next time a politician tells you stuff
he thinks you want to hear, think
about Homer Stokes from
"O Brother Where Art Thou?"
(If I knew who to credit with this
awesome illustration I would gladly
do so.)
This week the Alabama State Legislature will hold public hearings on HB 428, a law which proposes to install a porn filter on every Internet-capable device sold in the state starting next year. The law allows for the filter to be removed if the buyer pays $20 to the state (the business is allowed to add a "reasonable" fee). Apparently there are similar laws being proposed in at least two other states.

Let me be perfectly clear: I am against pornography. It is a shame that it is so commonplace on the Internet. The law specifically mentions child pornography and revenge porn. I think all sensible people agree that those are specifically heinous. I am not against people voluntarily installing filter programs on their computers or their children's. In a lot of cases that's probably a wise idea.

But this law is so fraught with problems, loopholes and unexplained realities that if it passes (which it shouldn't, but the Alabama Legislature isn't exactly known for wisdom) it will create more problems than it solves and do way more harm than good.

First of all, the bill requires manufacturers to install the filter. This is really untenable. It is unreasonable to expect even big sellers like Apple, Dell, Samsung, etc., to design specific devices for Alabama, to say nothing of the smaller companies that produce cheaper phones and tablets. They would effectively be put out of business in this state, which would adversely affect the poorest residents who rely on the cheaper devices to access the Internet.

Secondly, the bill says nothing about online sales. There is nothing in the bill that says Amazon and other online retailers have to comply with this law. This is sure to hurt Alabama businesses, as will residents driving to Chattanooga, Pensacola
or somewhere else to buy their devices. There aren't that many places in Alabama that aren't within an hour and a half from some state line.

The law also doesn't address jailbreaking or rooting the device to get rid of the filter without paying the fee. The people who are the real targets of this bill are tech-savvy enough to get around this quite easily. Meanwhile very few will actually pay to get the filter off their device, because who wants to publicly hand their phone across the counter to someone and ask for the filter to be taken off? The public shame will be enough to keep most people away.

More importantly, the simple fact of the matter is that no filter program really works like it is promised to. Filtering software tends to overreach and harm honest users while the real bad guys quickly figure out ways around it. Filters are notorious for keeping helpful information away from people who are in sexually abusive or exploitative situations. If someone can't find a description of what they are experiencing because it is blocked by a filter, how will they know to get out? Believe me, it happens. Abusers have been known to keep filters on their victims' computers.

One thing that is provided for in the law is a means by which people can report offensive material that escapes the filter. Manufacturers are required to update the filter from time to time to meet the concerns raised by citizens. I don't know about you, but I for sure don't want this guy in charge of what I and my family can and cannot look at on the Internet.

Finally, we don't live in a perfect world. People need to be informed about what is going on in the world around them. And sometimes the things they do might not pass muster with an Internet filter. Take, for example, Governor Bentley's affair with a state employee. Several TV and radio stations in the state refused to play the tapes of the lurid conversations for fear of an FCC citation. I have heard a brief snippet of the tapes. 30 seconds was about all I could stomach. How many people are unaware of Bentley's wrongdoing because of those stations' decisions? Maybe that is the reason there isn't more public pressure to impeach him?

One would think the filter would at least be similar to the FCC standard, so ironically the details of the governor's lurid relationship would be off-limits to Alabama residents if this law were to pass. Maybe this is the whole point of the law: the primary sponsor of the bill is a Republican. But honestly, I don't give him or most of the Alabama GOP credit for enough smarts to come up with such a plan to keep the governor's indiscretions under wraps. I think it's simpler to say this law is just grandstanding to please religious conservatives. The GOP thinks they will not consider the real-world ramifications. Instead they will see the GOP standing up against porn and will shower them with support in next year's election. Sadly, they think that because of years of experience in seeing it work.

If you want to see grandstanding in action (or if you have no idea what the above picture is about, watch this clip from "O Brother Where Art Thou":

The fact of the matter is there are already laws against child porn, revenge porn, solicitation and all the other big problems this bill claims to address. Instead of creating a new law that has the potential to harm local businesses, harm the poor and do little to address the real issues, state and local law enforcement should do more to enforce those laws, and the legislature can adjust those laws as may prove necessary. I know that's easier said than done, but passing this particular bill
will help no one, at least no one in Alabama.