Not long ago, a person had to seek out pornography on the Internet. Now, not only is seeking it out as easy as typing an obscene word into a search engine; it also comes to you, in the form of "spam" e-mails and bogus bait-and-switch websites.
Cyberporn has become one of the major uses of the Internet. One of the relatively few e-commerce ventures that actually makes money, online pornography has become a multi-billion dollar industry. The number of visits to pornographic sites has been estimated at more than 4 million-per night.
For those who wish to use the Internet for other things, it has become at best an annoyance and at worst an occupational hazard.
What can be done to clean up this electronic pollution? Efforts to legally restrict on-line companies from making pornography available to minors keep getting thrown out by the courts in the name of free speech. Besides, such laws-with many of the hard-core sites being run out of other countries-are impossible to enforce. Filtering software has some promise, but it has its holes and can fairly easily be evaded.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), concerned about the effect of media decadence on children, has been arguing that there always has to be a balance between individual rights and social responsibilities. "The balance of rights and responsibilities that has been eroding in the old media," he pointed out, "is essentially non-existent in the new. There are practically no stop signs on the information superhighway. There are no recognizable boundaries, no common norms, no shared sense of accountability" (testimony before Children's Online Protection Act Commission, June 8, 2000, available on WORLD's website, www.worldmag.com).
To balance the right of adults to have access to any material they want with the social mandate not to corrupt our children, Mr. Lieberman and other senators are floating the idea of setting up what he calls "a virtual red light district." Pornographic sites would be given their own domain ending-instead of "dot com," their internet address would end with "dot sex."
"Dot sex" sites could be easily filtered and made subject, he says, to the same laws governing "adult" bookstores and X-rated movies. The principle, first suggested by legal writer Jeffrey Rosen in The New Republic, would be that of zoning. Just as communities have used zoning laws to force sex shops out of respectable neighborhoods, the online community could segregate sex sites into their own separate domain. This, said Sen. Lieberman, would "effectively shield children from pornography, and it would do so without encroaching on the rights of adults to have access to protected speech."
The red-light districts of the 19th century set aside certain parts of the city where the prostitution laws were not enforced and other vices could be catered to. This allowed cities to maintain an external Victorian propriety while still catering to the constant market demand for sin.
Far from limiting prostitution, the red-light districts allowed it to flourish. Putting all of the brothels, gin shops, and opium dens into one easily-located neighborhood just made going to them all the more convenient for the Victorian gentleman.
Most attempts to address cyberporn focus on the need to keep it away from children. But there is also a social need to keep it away from adults. Pornography sparks the imaginations of rapists, child molesters, and serial killers. It can ruin marriages and lead to the abuse of women. (Properly speaking, pornography is the abuse of women, a degradation of the "models" who are paid to put themselves on display.) It is probably impossible to craft a law to keep pornography away from adults as well as children, governmental power being too much of a blunt instrument. Adults need to pay more attention to their own moral character, defined by Milton as what one does in private, when no one can see.
The only way the Aegean stable of the Internet can be cleaned up-to the extent it can be cleaned up-is through self-regulation. This means the self-regulation of the user, as well as the self-regulation of service and content providers. Search engines that are selective in what they cover, for example, do not have to include pornographic sites.
Recently, American Express announced that it would deny merchant status to online pornographers. This means that users could no longer pay for porn by typing in the number of their American Express credit cards. (A porn site will thus become one of those places that doesn't take American Express.) Internet critic Jackie Loohauis raises an interesting question: What if Visa and MasterCard followed suit?
Pornography thrives on the Internet because it seems like a private medium, promising total anonymity. No one will know. No one will know who I am. Of course, this anonymity is an illusion, as even well-regarded professionals find out when they get busted for downloading porn on company computers. Still, the desire for anonymity is evidence that people, for all of their vices, still perceive a moral reality: They are ashamed of what they are doing.