The Internet and cell phone pornography bill

The original text of this article in The Daily Maverick.

Last Saturday, in an act of flagrant disregard for the faiths of others, Pastor Ray McCauley had planned to promote his brand by exploiting paranoia around tourist safety at the World Cup. Unfortunately for Pastor Ray, a heart attack meant that he could not attend. But while tickets for the “National Day of Prayer” for a safe World Cup might as well have been accompanied by homeopathic remedies for xenophobia (which would be equally effective), the event still raises questions. Firstly, why do we need his god to help out with policing those pesky foreigners and other threats to World Cup harmony, like Ivo Vegter? Is Ray saying that the other gods aren’t up to the task or even – sotto voce – that they may not exist?

If so, the matter is presumably on the Muslim Council of Theologians’ radar, as denying the existence of Allah is clearly a more serious transgression than pictorial representations of Mohammed are. We can therefore move on to the broader issue of the continued eagerness on the part of government to invite policy feedback from people such as McCauley, who appear to be only marginally more qualified to provide such feedback than my pets are. This is because at least faith-heads can talk.

But when they talk, they always say the same things – and these are things we already know. We know that according to most religious doctrine, our laws are overly permissive, and that if some groups had their way we would outlaw abortion, bring back the death penalty, ban gay marriage, and maybe even do a little stoning. To the extent that policy issues should be influenced by the sensitivities of various sectors in society, we already know what policies the NILC would vote for.

It is, in other words, difficult to see the value added in soliciting the feedback of those who have a prior commitment to unprovable and unknowable propositions, where they don’t also have some demonstrable expertise in economics, politics, philosophy, or any other field with a clear connection and commitment to the (presumably) intended outcome of maximising the welfare of South African citizens.

The case in point is the recent comedy act from our Deputy Minister of Home Affairs, Malusi Gigaba. Mr Gigaba has introduced the “Internet and Cell Phone Pornography Bill” to the National Assembly, in which he proposes that all pornography accessible through the Internet and mobile phones – not only the already illegal forms such as child pornography – be made illegal. The bill does not provide any clarity on how he expects to be able to track and block (if necessary) the 136 000 new internet domains registered in the last twenty-four hours, nor all the ones that could get registered before he figures out how to shut down the internet.

Besides the mysterious desire to introduce bills that can’t possibly be enforced, what is notable about this bill is Section 4, titled “Consultation”. In this section, it is revealed that four organisations were consulted, of which three are explicitly Christian, and one apparently so. What’s more, the three Christian groups are already on record as being in opposition to all forms of pornography – which, as indicated earlier, means that the nature of their input towards this bill would have contained no surprises.

Their input is clear in the Bill itself, which contains plenty of terms like “scourge”, “blatantly”, “cruel, degrading and violent”. What it lacks, unfortunately, is any attempt to weigh up known harms of the availability of pornography versus known benefits of free expression.

Given that the banning of pornography over the internet and cell phones would have significant implications for freedom of expression (on the production side) and freedom of consumption (on the demand side), one would think that the FXI (Freedom of Expression Institute) might have had something useful to say, as would the Tier 1 internet service providers, in terms of the feasibility of this bill in the first instance.

Gigaba apparently thinks that he has addressed the concerns of those of us who constantly bang on about the freedom of expression, thanks to further input from John J. Smythe, Retired Member of the Bar of England and Wales, and the Honorary Director of the Justice Alliance of South Africa. In Smythe’s opinion, this bill is a justifiable limitation of the right to freedom of expression, as it is in the best interests of “the children of South Africa” and the “dignity of women”. And also, because the bill does not attempt to regulate sex shops, everyone can still apparently get all the porn they want.

Except, of course, for those who don’t live anywhere near a sex shop, or those women who don’t want Gigaba (or anyone else) to tell them what impairs their dignity, and what doesn’t. As for the children – the poor children – here we find yet another instance where the buck is passed by absolving parents of the responsibility to raise their children in ways which conduce to a healthy respect for all other sentient beings, and which allow children to grow up in a world where one has to make difficult choices, which may sometimes come with unfortunate consequences.

But difficult choices and their consequences are what we learn from, and removing choices can make children more difficult to protect – simply because part of what you are doing by limiting choice is turning adults into children, and thereby making your problem larger. What’s more, all these children will no doubt need more paternalism in the future, because there will be even less they can figure out for themselves.

Let us pray, then.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.