Pornography and Choice – The Dilemma Over the Future of Open

I’ve been following the Ryan Tate late-night rant (language) over Steve Jobs’ desire for a world “free from porn” and his objections therein (while still not completely sure the purpose for his rant).  While pornography was only one of the things Jobs highlighted, Tate, who has no children of his own, seemed to focus on it, considering a world “free from porn” an infringement on his own privacies.  I’d like to take a different angle and share my own views, as a parent of 4 children, and how I really feel the web as we know it infringes my own freedom as a parent.  It also infringes on my children’s own freedom, in the the native choices technology-wise that I have access to in order to protect my children and my family from pornography.  That’s right, I said it (well, I’ve said it before) – the web, while open, is not entirely free.  Let me explain.

Let me start with the point that, while outside this blog I may have my own opinions and beliefs, I am not saying in any way or form whether porn is “evil”, or “not evil”, or whether it is “good”, or “bad” for society.  That is not the purpose of this article, and I’ll leave that for you to decide.  One thing I think we can all agree on however is that, for good or for bad, pornography affects us all, and, as an individual, or father of 4 children, I don’t have much choice in the matter.  Let’s face it – whether I want it or not, my children are going to see porn, probably many, many times in their life, perhaps way before they are old enough to even know what it is.  As a parent, at least the way the open web works, at a native level I don’t have any choice in that matter.  Is that freedom?

Right now we live on a very open web.  It’s a vast web, linked together from website to website, which enables sites like Google and MSN and others to index that content and provide answers to many questions.  We have a whole lot more knowledge because of that.  At the same time it’s a very wild west atmosphere – the very “Net Neutrality” we are all fighting for is keeping any sort of control that parents and families so desperately want for their children from accidentally stumbling on things they don’t want to see.  This is probably why much more closed environments like Facebook are thriving – we’re being given some level of control, as parents and individuals, over this very open atmosphere.  We need an open way to fix this problem.  Or maybe closed is the only solution…

Let me share an example:  My daughter, who is 9 (not even starting puberty yet), told us the story of her friends at school talking about various sexual topics.  She told us about one friend, a boy, who wanted to know what sex was, so he Googled “sex” on the internet, something he knew how to do from school when he had a question about how something works or what something was.  Needless to say, as parents, at age 9, we were fortunate enough to have our daughter ask about this before Googling herself, but we were now forced to give “the talk” to a 9 year old.  I can only imagine that boy’s parents – I hope he talked with them about what he found.

As a father of 4, I’m scared to death what my kids are going to have to go through.  I certainly don’t want to shelter them from the world, but at the same time I want to be the one introducing them to the world, not the world getting to them first.  We need innovation in this area.  I’m worried it’s an area that gets little attention because the innovators in this space either aren’t parents themselves, or have no objections to their children seeing it.  The thing is, this isn’t a “good” vs. “bad” battle.  This is a battle about true “freedom”.  This isn’t about anyone telling you that you can’t watch porn.  This is about those on the web that don’t want to watch it or come across it being able to avoid it entirely, as a native component of the web.

Right now all the solutions out there are hacks.  Solutions like (my favorite – I’ll be doing a review soon) Net Nanny, Norton Internet Security, and others are great at helping parents to monitor what their kids are doing and even protecting them from things their parents don’t want them to see, but in reality they’re just solving a problem the web should have solved in the first place.  Pornography, sexual content, violence, or anything else we, as parents and individuals want a handle over should be elements that are handled at the core of the web.  The web needs elements to identify this type of content, and ways to punish those that don’t identify their content, taking away the overall freedom that is inherent to the web.  The web should be about choice.  It’s not at the moment.

At the same time, operating systems, like Windows, OS X, the iPad, Android, and the iPhone, all need to have layers built in that give parents and individuals more control over the content they want to see.  I should note that Facebook, at the moment, has no way for me as a parent to monitor what my child is doing on the site – I can’t let my kids on it until I have that control.  Don’t even get me started about Google Chat.

I’m not quite sure what the solution is, but we need innovation in this area.  Perhaps XRD or the new JRD and identifiers for content are the solution.  Maybe Google and Microsoft and others that index this content could reward sites with higher search rankings that properly identify their data.  Maybe a “.xxx” TLD is the solution.  At the same time we have to take into account chat, and how people interact online.  Maybe verified identity is the solution in this area.  On the open web we can’t give up on this effort though, or the more closed solutions, like Jobs inferred with the iPad, are going to win, and rightfully so.

Steve Jobs is right, whether Ryan Tate likes it or not – as a parent I am not free on the web right now.  The only freedom I have is to just turn off the computer, keep my kids from learning technology at a young age, and hope they don’t see it at school, or at a friends’ house, or the elsewhere (which they will).  Freedom is about choice – we should all have the choice in this matter, and that choice just doesn’t exist on the web at the moment.  I hope the Open Web can fix these problems before Apple, or Microsoft, or Facebook do it in a closed environment.  Either way, I welcome the extra freedom I will get from it.

From one parent to another:  Thank you Steve, for trying to make my life as a parent a little more “free”.

29 thoughts on “Pornography and Choice – The Dilemma Over the Future of Open

  1. You can never say you bought porn from Walmart. You can buy a TV and a DVD player and watch it once you leave the store (web browser) but porn will never have a Walmart sticker on it.

    If you only shop at Walmart, you are in a safe environment. You can choose to shop elsewhere, but you can give your kids a $20 gift card and know they aren't going to walk out with graphic sexual content.

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  2. Well said. As a father of two (my 3 yr old son already knows how to open a browser and go to his favorite site – Playhouse Disney) I couldn't agree more. Control and responsibility bring freedom.

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  3. Another great tool for protecting your kids (and yourself) from smut online is to use and configure OpenDNS. It has the added benefit of speeding up overall browsing as well.

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  4. Firstly, you do not have the freedom to take away the freedoms of others. Because yes, it really is about censorship.

    But really, I'm not trying to be argumentative here, so let me put it another way. You state above: “As a parent, at least the way the open web works, at a native level I don’t have any choice in that matter. Is that freedom?” The answer to your question is yes, but it's not a freedom for you, it's a freedom for your kids.

    See, while I absolutely support the rights of parents to choose what their children are exposed to and such, it must be also pointed out that this is a right with a fixed limitation on it. Your right to limit the freedoms of your child ends when your child becomes an adult. That ending of your rights and responsibilities is the most important part of the whole thing. Children have to grow up. Adults must be created to replace the ones leaving. Children cannot remain ignorant forever.

    Now, while it's true that there is no easy way to filter the content of the web, this is not a specific problem to the internet. There's no easy filter on the *entire world* either. You, as a parent, are not fully in charge of the inputs your child receives. You can't be, it's physically impossible. So perhaps instead of considering your job of raising that child to be something which can actually be solved, perhaps it's better, and more healthy, to treat it as a best-effort scenario instead. You cannot absolutely raise your child “correctly” because there is no appropriate definition of “correct” that can be applied here. Instead, you should do the best you can, try to instill in them you own senses of ethics and morality, and generally do your best.

    Treating the world as some kind of evil place which you must filter from them absolutely, with no room for error or failure, is simply not a healthy viewpoint to have. IMO, of course.

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  5. Two comments:

    First, if one is going to control one's Internet experience, there's the question of where that control should be exerted. If you read Duncan Riley at all, you'll note that he is not happy that his home country (Australia) plans to do this at the national government level; in fact, he's compared Australia to China at times. From your post, I assume that your preference is to set such controls at the family level, but that doesn't mean that you have control when your kids go to school, or to the library, or to a friend's house. (And this is not necessarily an “either-or”; perhaps a national government will set filters for child pornography, while the family filters all mentions of the Dallas Cowboys, and service provider AT&T filters all criticism of Steve Jobs.)

    Second, no matter where control is exerted, our tools have to get better. When my daughter was much younger, we had her use the MSN browser, which had a set of controls built in. However, those controls were not necessarily granular enough, since they blocked all mention of religion – a definite problem when your kid is attending a Lutheran school. But if we create truly granular filters, will they become too complex for most people to use?

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  6. Saying that you're not free on the Web because it contains things that you don't want your children to see is just twisted semantics. You're basically saying that, if we eliminate things to which you object from the Web, you and your family will be free to surf the Web without encountering things to which you object, which, as a simple tautology, is true as far as it goes. But… I personally object to having my children stumble across videos of Sarah Palin leading the crowd in an inane chant of “Drill, Baby, Drill!” — and so I'm sure you'll agree with me that, as a parent, I won't be free on the Web until somebody figures out a way to get Ms. Palin off the damn thing.

    Personally, I have no problem with pornography being on the Web, and I don't appreciate you telling me that I can't have it because my access to it somehow makes you less free. It's the exact same argument censors always use: They're doing it for your own good. Thanks for your help, Jesse, but I prefer not to give you the freedom to make my decisions for me, I prefer to keep the freedom to make my own decisions instead.

    (But if you DO find a way to get rid of the porn, could you please take Ms. Palin with you as you go? Thanks!)

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  7. Appreciate the post, Jesse – even if I don't necessarily agree.

    I didn't really have a problem with Jobs keeping pornographic apps off of the iPhone, to be honest. But I will say that I don't agree with your argument that not having total control over an environment means that you're not free as a parent or individual. In fact, a closed web won't protect you from parents who disagree with your stance, as your example shows – it also wouldn't have protected them fifty or one-hundred years ago.

    If we were going to do anything, we should keep from forcing adults to segregate content and force parents to put in the effort to segregate children's content (which is along the lines of what you're talking about). A subtle difference, but one that requires parents to actively say what content they want, rather than simply pointing at what they don't want. Since decency rules don't lend themselves to being scoped when they are focused on pointing out negatives, I think requiring active selection would help prevent people from going crazy with prohibitions. This would also prohibit restrictions on non-pornographic material, but material that some parents might not wish their children to see but which is such a judgement call, that broadly applied rules seem inappropriate in my opinion, such as scantily clad bodies. This is something which Jobs has also had banned on the iPad – even when it shows the exact same cover as the print edition of a magazine that can be purchased at your local supermarket.

    While I don't point the finger at you on this because I think your post is well thought-out, too often, I hear parents say things that abdicate themselves of the responsibility of “policing” their children – this winds up imposing restrictions on adults. They are, just as I am, free to turn off the television/computer (my dad insisted on no television during the week when I was a kid – a decision for which I'm _still_ thankful) or vote with their dollars and buy another tablet/smartphone. The same goes for adults: if you really must have your pornography on the go, I'm sure someone will find a solution for it – the iPad may not be the solution for you, and that's fine.

    Again – I appreciate your starting this conversation – please keep it up 🙂

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  8. John, I mean to set those preferences at the individual level. Each
    individual should have the right to see what they want to see on the
    internet. No one else should control that (well, unless you're a parent, in
    which I have a right to control what my kids see).

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  9. Correct me if I'm wrong, but the internet and the web in general is basically of a “pull” request type. Unless they have started pushing websites onto your television and forcing you to watch them, then I'd say you have absolute total control over what you see on the internet.

    No, what you're really talking about is the ability to filter content so that you don't accidentally request something that you don't want. The problem here is that a) you can't automatically define what the type of content is in any sane manner and b) you really don't have the right to force everybody else to manually define what their content is anyway.

    And anyway, how do you define “porn”? Can you define it in a way that everybody else agrees with? What some people find as offensive you might not. How granular do these controls have to be? If it's down to the level of the individual site, then it's obviously useless, but any form of categorization system is going to have flaws because the terms themselves are open to interpretation.

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  10. AAAMEN!! Amazing post. I don't even know what to say. You hit the nail on the head and said it way better than I could have. I also hope we can see more inovation in this area. Thanks for the great post. I'll be sharing it with all of my friends.

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  11. Thanks jinkhet, I'm by far not advocating the parents not being involved.
    I'm just recognizing the fact that parents can't be involved 100% of the
    time. It is those times that you a) want to prepare your children for, and
    b) hopefully have ways to prevent them from seeing that content until you
    are ready for them to see it. As a parent, I want to be the one introducing
    them to that, in a way that is appropriate so they can be properly taught.
    Also, as an individual, I want the choice to not see that stuff if I don't
    want to. Right now I don't have that choice.

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  12. That's my point Otto – you can't define what is “porn”, nor can you define
    what isn't. You *can* define the content that is on your page, and if I can
    specify what I determine is “porn”, or what I don't want to see, and have
    search engines, browsers, and more respecting what I, the user, want, the
    entire internet wins. This is about choice. Right now there isn't enough
    choice out there – people aren't being rewarded for identifying what their
    content is on the web.

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  13. Great article. I totally agree. And if you're worried about your 9-year-old seeing things, just realize that someone's 15-year-old is being sucked into the industry. I think we envision mature women making a conscious decision to make this a career, but too often, then are our teenagers.

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  14. I have no problem, in theory, with a national government exerting some control over what people within the country can see on the Internet. Each society has its laws which define right and wrong, and despite the worldwide nature of the Internet, a nation has the right to control what is available. If a government has the right to prevent a crooked company from sending fraudulent material through snail mail, doesn't the government have the same right to prevent a crooked company from sending fraudulent material through electronic mail?

    And yes, there are bound to be conflicts when the Internet control laws of the United States differ from the Internet control laws of another country such as Australia. But these differences are not limited to the Internet – I'm reminded of this whenever European visitors go to our local Costco and see jars with hundreds of pain relief tablets – something that they just don't have back home. On the other hand, any visitor from the Netherlands who goes to a U.S. coffee shop will notice the absence of one item that's available back home.

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  15. I think this has to be an underlying standard, so government entities don't
    need to be involved. One thing that could fix all this is if Google
    rewarded sites that included RDF identifiers about the content of each page.
    Have an RDF identifier? Your site gets ranked higher. Then apps could
    start looking at that to determine the type of content, and ignoring sites
    that don't.

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  16. Any system that forces the content provider to define what their content is will always be open to subversion and exploitation. I can make my marketing and ad spam claim to be fluffy lolcats and instantly bypass your filters.

    The basic problem is that you're wanting to block things, but it is not in the interest of the other side for them to be blocked by you. As far as I can tell, there simply is no solution to this. You don't want to see something, other people actively do want you to see it. No amount of technology is going to change that situation, because technology cannot deal with hostile intentions or intentionally bad input.

    It's basically the same problem as email spam, and just as insoluble.

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  17. Otto, again, I'm not suggesting anyone force anyone to do anything. I am
    suggesting standards, and rewards for adhering to those standards so that
    users in general have more choice. No one is taking anything away from you,
    in fact, you have more choice through such standards.

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  18. How do you make following this idea of a standard into a “reward” when the end result is people NOT seeing the content that's being described? This doesn't sound like a reward at all, but a punishment.

    You're basically talking about adding to your ability to filter out content. There is no possible “reward” for a content provider to make it easier for you to filter out their content.

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  19. There's not any distinguishing as to the types of content. No choice is
    being removed. The only reward is if they are identifying their content and
    giving people more choice. I'm not saying to demote a site because of the
    type of content it contains. I'm saying demote a site because it's not
    willing to identify the type of content it contains. I think that's a good
    thing. If you don't think so we will have to agree to disagree.

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  20. I get the idea there, but that doesn't account for malice. You have no way to verify that the site isn't lying about the content it contains.

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