Covid-19 taught us a great deal about misinformation online — or it should have. In the space of a few months, the Wuhan lab leak theory went from fringe conspiracy theory in need of censorship, lest it spread, to the consensus among the mainstream scientific community. The episode brought into sharp focus how hard it can be to tell harmful content from harmful censorship, and the flaws of any attempt to centralize and codify content moderation.
Ever determined to ignore the lessons of recent history, politicians are pressing ahead with a censorship agenda. A new wave of content moderation bills has cropped up across the country. From Minnesota to Tennessee to California, lawmakers are inserting themselves into the relationship between the internet and the consumer, this time under the guise of protecting children from harmful content such as pornography.
Thousands of pages could be written about the individual issues with each of the dozens of similar bills, but they are all cut from the same cloth. They represent an approach to policing the internet whose flaws have been repeatedly exposed. Government cannot unilaterally block access to content it deems harmful, nor should it try to.
Using the government as an adult content watchdog is a slippery slope. If we permit the state to prevent access to pornography, there is no clear logical conclusion to that line of thinking. Once we have consented to sidestepping our First Amendment rights, where does it stop? Will we also allow the government to determine the types of videos we can watch when it comes to other forms of entertainment? How about political speeches? Do we really want politicians creating lists of websites we are forbidden from viewing, even when their content is perfectly legal?
Mission creep is a real problem. Lawmakers are incapable of staying within their bounds. They are practically guaranteed to use any new powers we grant them to grow the extent of their influence over our lives as far as they can manage. If you think Big Tech censorship is bad, it is nothing compared to what would happen if our leaders gained the right to dictate what content you can or cannot see.
Ironically, there is huge overlap between the politicians who bemoan — rightly — the apparent suppression of counter-mainstream views about the origins of the coronavirus and those who believe government should have the right to decide what content adults can and cannot access.
There are few limits to how far the pro-censorship lobby want government to go in cracking down on content they do not like. What would a state-censored internet look like in America? Perhaps the Department of Homeland Security will hand out criminal penalties against people working in the porn industry, and consumers themselves. While that would no doubt create a substantial new revenue stream for the government, it is not representative of how a free, civilized country treats the internet.
Before long, the black market would rear its ugly head. Prohibitions or onerous new restrictions on legal pornography will only push the industry underground, where cooperation with law enforcement will be non-existent and porn money would flow much more easily into the wider criminal world. Such a popular, profitable industry being forced out of the purview of the law would be a boon for criminals who operate on the dark web.
The push to criminalize porn will do little to protect children, who are increasingly au fait with using VPNs and other tools to circumvent censors, but it will open a backdoor to further censorship and fuel criminality.
Jason Reed is the spokesperson for Young Voices and a policy analyst and political commentator for a wide range of outlets. Follow him on Twitter @JasonReed624.