Minesweeper

The Guardian reports that British Prime Minister David Cameron will soon announce sweeping measures to reduce child access to online pornography. Beginning at the end of next year, every household in Britain with an Internet connection will be obliged to decide whether they want family-friendly filters installed by their Internet service providers, and the default selection for new connections will be “yes.” The possession of “extreme pornography,” depictions of simulated rape, will also be outlawed, for the prime minister rightly observes, “These images normalise sexual violence against women – and they are quite simply poisonous to the young people who see them.”

This is a very encouraging policy move, which could serve as a model for legislation here in the United States. Cameron’s comments aimed at internet search providers are especially noteworthy:

I have a very clear message for Google, Bing, Yahoo and the rest. You have a duty to act on this – and it is a moral duty. If there are technical obstacles to acting on [search engines], don’t just stand by and say nothing can be done; use your great brains to help overcome them.

You’re the people who have worked out how to map almost every inch of the Earth from space; who have developed algorithms that make sense of vast quantities of information. Set your greatest brains to work on this. You are not separate from our society, you are part of our society, and you must play a responsible role in it.


That last exhortation calls to mind American FCC chairman Newton Minow’s famous “Wasteland” speech of 1961 to the National Association of Broadcasters. Appealing to the responsibility of broadcasters to serve the genuine public interest, Minow delivered an impassioned speech widely regarded as one of America’s best in the twentieth century.
When television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your own television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day . . . Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland. You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending.

By his appeal to the broadcast networks’ responsibility to the public interest, Minow had hoped that reform could come from within the industry itself. Broadcasting over public airwaves, the industry was a trustee of the public interest with an unprecedented degree of power. This power described by Minow could just as easily be ascribed to those browsers and search providers that give access to the Internet’s filth and riches:
What you gentlemen broadcast through the people’s air affects the people’s taste, their knowledge, their opinions, their understanding of themselves and of their world. And their future. The power of instantaneous sight and sound is without precedent in mankind’s history. This is an awesome power. It has limitless capabilities for good—and for evil. And it carries with it awesome responsibilities— responsibilities which you and I cannot escape.

Minow’s appeal to the conscience of the industry was not to great effect. The public interest is not the same as what interests the public, and what interests the public is what brings a profit to the broadcast industry. Cameron’s appeal to the conscience of Internet search providers faces the same challenges. Depending on the study, anywhere from 13-25% of all Internet searches on a given day are for pornographic material—that’s a sizable chunk of search-related ad revenue. Hence the need for regulation.

If broadcast television in 1961 was a wasteland, the Internet in 2013 is Newton Minow’s new minefield. It may be impossible to dig up the mines, but the path of our children’s cyber-wanderings can be safely directed away from the fields where they lay. Cameron’s announcement today signals a step in that direction, a step for England congruent with the wisdom of an American FCC chairman: “And just as history will decide whether the leaders of today’s world employed the atom to destroy the world or rebuild it for mankind’s benefit, so will history decide whether today’s broadcasters employed their powerful voice to enrich the people or debase them.”

Photo Credit: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Staff Sgt. Ezekiel R. Kitandwe/Released

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