It is easy to dismiss Rick Santorum’s promised war on pornography as more moralizing from a candidate who apparently questions the separation of church and state. But it exposes an important fault line in thinking about the Internet when seen in conjunction with Nick Kristof’s call in this Sunday’s New York Times for Backpage to stop carrying adult classifieds. At issue here is what constitutes an effective approach to the regulation of content and commerce on the Internet and is closely related to thinking about what comes after SOPA and PIPA.
Let’s start with a baseline assumption here: we don’t ever want to have a China-style firewall around the US that attempts to inspect all content flowing across the network. If you share the belief that this would represent an unacceptable level of government control and restriction on free speech, then you need to embrace a different approach to both pornography and forced prostitution than currently pursued. Why? Because if we attempt to crack down in a simplistic fashion in the US then online activity will simply flow to overseas and/or encrypted sites which will still be accessible here.
Consider what happened following the Attorney Generals’ attack on Craigslist which resulted in the removal of adult services ads. Backpage picked up a bunch of the business but so did a smattering of other web sites. In fact, the very AIM Group that Kristof cites in his piece, published the following on February 24th “Sites set combined record for online prostitution-ad revenue.” Not surprisingly, shutting down Craigslist simply moved these ads elsewhere (as an aside: tracking revenue is too narrow a measure as there are many free publication alternatives on the web). Shutting down Backpage’s adult ads will result in even more new sites springing up. And even if we somehow magically succeeded in getting every US site to stop something that isn’t illegal in and of itself we would ultimately see these ads flow to international sites.
So we can continue to try to fight human trafficking by playing a game of Internet whack-a-mole — which has just as much chance of succeeding as the content industry’s attempt to suppress piracy — or we can try to figure out what the net native approach is. To attack the problem of pimps forcing women into prostitution we need to come up with the most effective ways for the women themselves to be able to reach authorities and for third parties to be able to detect suspicious activity. One idea for the former is providing anonymous access to help via text messages and widely publicizing this (it would be interesting to work with someone like Alissa from Nick’s column to create this). The obvious idea for the latter is to work with sites like Backpage and not against them. For instance, it is quite possible that a much better screening system can be created that identifies ads that may involve trafficking based on how the text is written and how the ads are posted. We won’t know that until we try it out (and big data has gotten very good at picking up even very subtle patterns).
There won’t be a silver bullet though. As a book review of from the same issue of the New York Times points out, there were 40,000 prostitutes in New York in 1890 (and likely a lot of human trafficking). But the chances of succeeding are much higher when leveraging the Internet and cooperative US based sites than if these ads run primarily on foreign sites or in dark and increasingly encrypted corners.
The same goes for pornography. I agree that it has potentially harmful effects and admire Cindy Gallop for her tireless efforts behind Make Love Not Porn. As a father of three I would rather they not be exposed to hardcore pornography while growing up. But to think you can get pornography off the Internet with anything short of dictatorial control is a dangerous misunderstanding.
Keeping the Internet open will ultimately be much more important for the next generation. It will let them build the networks needed to fight human trafficking and to educate themselves and others.