The Ottawa Citizen
Saturday, July 20, 1996

Unstoppable cyberporn forces us to confront basic issues

by Peter Calamai,

I have been wallowing in vicarious sex and visual smut for the last few days, to prove a point: All attempts to censor what people see, experience and do in private are doomed by the onward rush of technology. As a result, we're going to have to rethink our whole approach to the public enforcement of morals.

As an example, it took me only a few hours and a $9.95 U.S. payment to obtain 10 different portrayals of the kind of child pornography outlawed by 1993 amendments to the Criminal Code. I did it by reaching halfway around the world from the constitutionally protected safety of my home. And I got the child porn from a source available through any Internet provider, even those that claim to have blocked access to such illegal materials.

I'm sure most people have no inkling how much explicit sex is available to anyone with a computer and a phone line. Most of us have never investigated this, either from lack of interest, moral disapproval or embarrassment. If that's still your view, don't bother reading any further; just close your eyes and hope that this emerging world disappears.

It's a world where the Amateur Hardcore website promises 223,545 graphic adult files in the database "with more than 1,000 being added every week." It's a world of Pink Bits, a website touted as "Your Teen Slut Wonderland." It's a world of jerky moving pictures sent down phone lines while "a live nude girl ... acts out your most sensual fantasies right before your eyes."

And that's merely some heterosexual aspects; there are vast Internet offerings for sado-masochists, gays, lesbians, and other preferences I didn't investigate. (The Sex Workers' Alliance of Vancouver has one of the better-known gateways for such material.)

Much of all this is merely distasteful, the high-tech version of peep-show voyeurism (one site offers a 105-minute video filmed inside a women's washroom). But much is undeniably obscene, at least under the sweeping feminist redefinition of pornography that the Supreme Court of Canada adopted in 1992.

I happen to believe the Supreme Court ruling was intellectually dishonest, since the justices based their reasoning on the harm that obscenity allegedly does to society and then conceded that no evidence existed of such a direct causal link. But that's no longer the issue.

The question is how society should respond now that technology has made a mockery both of the redefined obscenity law and the ban on child pornography. Short of a totalitarian state, with unrestricted phone taps, Stasi-style spying and capricious enforcement, there is today no practical way to uphold these censorship provisions.

Of course, the police and the justice system can simply continue the current inequitable practice of charging some people -- such as owners of gay and lesbian bookstores -- for selling over the counter what others sell over the modem with impunity. And they can continue to pretend to be even-handedly enforcing the ban on simple possession of child pornography even though, as police admitted this week, individuals are charged only when somebody squeals.

As use of the Internet spreads and cyberporn becomes even more pervasive, these laws will become as unenforceable as Prohibition in the 1920s. And when one law is discredited, respect for all law suffers.

The classic Rousseau liberal solution would be to depend on education to teach men that it's wrong to want to exploit women and children in this way. Education certainly can change attitudes. I remember being in a room of male and female university graduate students a dozen years ago for a screening of the NFB's Not a Love Story, as effective an anti-pornography movie as has ever been made. That film -- and the sexually charged debates around the college for days afterwards -- changed a lot of attitudes among those men.

But that race is lost before it begins: Education moves by generations while Internet porn is expanding exponentially.

A few hours online is enough to identify hundreds of news groups, listservers, websites and other technological entry points to this oldest of human passions -- and human vices.

Then there are the technological fixes, like "nanny" software programs triggered by a list of forbidden words. Sometimes the results are merely comical; the English town of Scunthorpe doesn't exist on America Online because of software blocking "crude language."

Ultimately, however, such fixes simply delude parents and other authorities that the issue is being dealt with. No software program or allegedly censored Internet connection would stop even the mildly curious user from viewing and downloading child pornography, plus anything else.

So perhaps society ought to go back to the basics and examine what we're trying to accomplish with the public enforcement of morals. If we're really concerned only about activities that harm others, how can we possibly justify prosecution for possession of Victorian-era child pornography? Those children are dead. Or how do we rationalize the calls to excuse Robert Latimer's murder of his incapacitated daughter -- an undeniable harm -- with calls for stricter prosecution of pornography allegedly dehumanizing or degrading to women in general -- a harm even the Supreme Court conceded was unproven?

These are not easy issues. They involve philosophical concepts unfamiliar to many, such as utilitarianism and moral independence. They have been tackled by some of the best minds of our time without any finding the answer.

But, thanks to the Internet, we no longer have the luxury of not dealing with them.

Copyright © 1996 by The Ottawa Citizen. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.