Well, well, well. Look who's censoring the Internet. It's Andrew Cuomo, attorney general of the Empire State. On June 11, Cuomo announced an agreement with three of the nation's largest Internet service providers -- Sprint, Time Warner, and Verizon -- to block access to child pornography and eliminate such content from their networks wherever possible. Negotiations are ongoing with two other, as yet unnamed, service providers.
You might think that these companies would have cracked down on child porn purveyors without the assist of New York's attorney general. But apparently not. Undercover agents from the attorney general's office first posed as subscribers and complained to Internet providers about the availability of child pornography. The companies ignored them. Only then did the attorney general drop the mask and switch to intimidation mode, threatening the companies with charges of fraud and deceptive business practices.
The aptly named website Gawker is alarmed. "As despicable and exploitative as child porn is, blocking it this way is a terrible move. This is apparently the first time these ISPs have agreed to censor certain web content. And once that line is crossed, theoretically it could be pushed to block more and more porn." Imagine! Get the smelling salts.
As Irving Kristol so wisely observed several decades ago, "...If you care for the quality of life in our American democracy, then you have to be for censorship." Most liberals in good standing profoundly rejected Kristol's insight then and continue to resist it today. They believe themselves to be anti-censorship -- yet they practice censorship informally and most assiduously. Liberals who publish magazines and newspapers scour them for any hint of racism or homophobia. No one in the United States today would produce a sympathetic play about apartheid or Nazism (the same cannot be said, of course, for plays expressing sympathy for communism, but that's an old story). Moviemakers are at pains to eliminate images of cigarette smoking in films, lest they lend support to an undesirable behavior. And college campuses, in the hands of the tenured radicals, have become playgrounds for speech codes and other forms of liberal authoritarianism.
So while liberals think of themselves as anti-censorship, they aren't at all. This is not to scold them for their hypocrisy (or not entirely) but rather to attempt to move toward a consensus. Liberals tend to argue that child porn is a special case. If it involves real children, the very act of making the stuff is a crime. Children are obviously not consenting adults.
But I'm for censoring child porn even if it is produced with computer generated children. That's a much harder case for most liberals, who worship personal autonomy above virtue or (an old word) decency. In 2002, the Supreme Court invalidated a federal law criminalizing the production of virtual child porn. But that law was poorly drafted. A more narrowly tailored alternative might well pass constitutional muster even with the present court.
Andrew Cuomo is to be commended. It's a little shocking that he has not yet been excoriated by the ACLU or the editorial page of the New York Times. Would they be so biddable if the New York attorney general were a Republican?
We censor because we find certain kinds of stimuli reprehensible and corrupting. Note the gerund. It isn't just that bad or corrupt individuals choose to trade pictures of children being sexually abused. It's that we fear that many people who would otherwise not have indulged such sick appetites are moved to do so by the availability of the filth (Cuomo actually used that word!) online. Culture has consequences. Kristol was right when he argued that "Bearbaiting and cockfighting are prohibited only in part out of compassion for the animals; the main reason is that such spectacles were felt to debase and brutalize the citizenry who flocked to witness them." We do, as Kristol held, have a proper concern with the way people entertain themselves in public. I would go further and suggest that viewing child porn -- even in private -- should be as difficult as we can make it. Censor away, Mr. Attorney General -- and broaden your net.