cleaning out the tubes
Aside from the little problem of logistical impossibility, my first issue with his plan (or at least the way the media are reporting it) is the way porn is lumped in the same sentence as child molestation. Can we please not put these things in equivalent categories? Many, many ordinary - and perfectly moral - people look at, and enjoy, pornography in various forms. Basically since humankind began to express its ideas visually, there has been porn. From boys happily sodomising each other on Grecian urns, to the interactive user-sharing websites of today, there have always been people who enjoyed looking at depictions of others having sex. It's part of human nature, so as long as no laws are being broken, let's just grow up, deal with it, and move on. The issue of children being exposed to internet porn is really a very simple one, and it comes down to parental responsibility. If you're worried about your child being emotionally traumatised by the site of people having sex, then get yourself an internet filter; it's not the government's responsibility to do this for you.
Sexual predation of minors, on the other hand, is much more complex issue. Pedophilia is justifiably one of the most despised crimes that can be committed in human society. And, indeed, the internet would seem to provide an all-too-convenient environment for child-abusers to home in on their prey. But before we decide the best way to counter this problem, it's essential that we understand the facts. A recent Internet Caucus in the US (neatly summarised here on Boing Boing) shows how out-of-touch most efforts to deal with online "sexual predation" really are.
In the vast majority of cases, the young victims of these crimes are not children, but teenagers. In the vast majority, there is no deception involved; the so-called predator never disguises his/her age or identity. In the vast majority of cases, if sex between the minor and the predator does occur, it is consentual.
As a perfect example, let me tell you about a boy I briefly knew a few years ago, who we'll call Robbie. I received a message from him on a gay dating website of which I was a member at the time. After adding him to my msn account, he quickly told me that he had lied about his age (you were supposed to be eighteen to join the site, although this was not strictly enforced), and that he was in fact fourteen years old. There was a certain sadness in the way he chatted that piqued my usually-latent saviour complex; he reminded me of myself at fourteen. Thinking that perhaps he needed someone to talk to, I decided to be friendly to him. About fifteen minutes of casual chatting later, Robbie told me that he thought he was falling in love with me, and begged me to meet up with him in a romantic capacity. Alarm bells ringing, I politely declined, citing his age as the reason I couldn't even consider it. Robbie was very upset, but soon got over it. A few weeks later, he told me about a guy who we'll call Tom, who he'd met on the same site, and who was now his "boyfriend". Tom was even older than me, and Robbie eventually admitted that their relationship was a sexual one. I tried to get Robbie to see sense. I tried to explain how his insistence that Tom was "the nicest guy in the world" was belied by the fact that he was in his late twenties and fucking a fourteen-year-old. Robbie's "relationship" with Tom quickly fell apart, but it was only the first in a string of sexual encounters he would have with much older men. Every time, he was "in love" with them, until they inevitably revealed themselves to be total creeps. Gradually, I despaired of trying to tell him how dangerous his behaviour was, and grew tired of suggesting he try meeting boys of his own age. Before long, I ceased chatting with him altogether.
Clearly, what happened to Robbie was by no means an open-shut child molestation case. He invited, even begged for, the romantic attentions of much older men. Basically, he was a very messed-up and deeply unhappy kid. Through our chats, I came to discover his mother had died when he was very young, and he and his sister (a pregnant heroin user) had a decidedly difficult relationship with their Dad, by whom he had never felt loved. Robbie was painfully easy to analyse: this boy had never felt affection or even acknowledgement from an adult male, and now finding himself teenage and gay, the need for attention combined dangerously with his developing sexuality. Obviously Tom and the other guys who preyed on Robbie's vulnerability acted inexcusably. But if Robbie had not had such a troubled upbringing, I don't believe he would ever have cast himself in this role of teenage seducer.
Which brings us back to the internet. Clearly the issues that led to this situation were sad and complicated. The fact that Robbie, Tom and the others had access to the internet was simply not one of these issues. There is no doubt in my mind that, if Robbie had not had the internet, he would still have found a way to become sexually involved with older men (and would hanging around public toilets or other beats really be any better?). If Tom et al hadn't had the internet, they would still have found a way to prey on young teenagers (and would hanging around schoolyards or other youth venues really be any better?). The relationship here is much more complex than predator-prey. And it is certainly much too complex to be solved by restricting the world wide web.
Howard's pledge to "clean up the internet" just seems like yet another flashy vote-grab: making it look like he's doing something, when in reality he's made no effort to even understand the issues, let alone tackle them.