9 February 2022

The ‘Porn Laws’ are just the latest example of pointless government finger-wagging

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The Government’s paternalistic streak knows no bounds. We now have the prospect of online age verification, a crackdown on offensive comedy, restrictions on food and drink advertising, and perhaps worst of all, the disastrous Online Safety Bill which creates a new category of ‘legal but harmful speech’.

It would be grimly amusing watching ministers flailing around for any policy that sticks, if it weren’t so dangerous.

Underlying all this is the perennial canard that it’s up the Government do something – anything, really – about social ills, whether they leap from your computer screen or lurk in the supermarket aisle. Whether these policies actually achieve much is almost beside the point, provided ministers can show that they ‘did something’.

Unfortunately, in seeking to ‘help’, government can often do more harm than good. Take the previously announced, then scrapped, then re-announced age verification for pornography sites: the dreaded ‘Porn Laws’. While it sounds like a noble cause – protecting children from explicit content – the legislation’s wide-reaching and invasive implementation will change the way we use the internet for the worse.

Under the proposed changes, adults will be required to enter personal biographical or financial info, through a passport or credit card, to gain access to certain websites. And it’s not even for websites that primarily host pornographic content, but any websites that might inadvertently host what could be considered explicit content, which includes pretty much every social media website. With the threat of a fine worth 10% of worldwide turnover for non-compliance, companies will be pretty much forced to toe the line, regardless of their customers’ views on the matter.

Are we really about to enter a world where you need your passport or driving licence to get on Twitter? More to the point, this kind of age verification won’t even work, as any vaguely tech-savvy teen can easily use a VPN to circumvent the rules. Illiberal? Check. Overly prescriptive? Check. Unlikely to achieve the desired aims? Check.

Any other example you pick tick the same boxes. A ban on advertising high fat, salt, and sugar foods which will raise production costs, pointlessly encompass staples like sausages and peanut butter, and only reduce children’s caloric intake by about 3 calories per day? Check. Check. Check.

As well as showing little regard for effectiveness, scope or burden, these policies set dangerous precedents. We should all shudder at the phrase ‘legal but harmful’ as indicative of the true intentions of Government policy – cracking down on perfectly legal activities because it makes the Government look like they care. In the evergreen words of Ronald Reagan: ‘The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I”m from the Government and I’m here to help.’

Rather than draining time, resources and governmental focus on trying to find problems with perfectly legal activities, the Government should focus on the illegal activities people actually care about – crime, fraud, people trafficking and the like. There is so much scope for the Government to be more effective at their core responsibilities: they could create a more efficient and effective immigration framework, they could tackle drug-related crime by liberalising drug laws, they could fully legalise housebuilding (chance would be a fine thing). Instead of focusing on what they could do to make our lives better, we are left with finger-wagging about what we are supposedly doing wrong.

So it’s not about whether or not you have to put in personal information to view porn. Or whether or not you think cruel comedy should be censored. Or whether or not you want sugary cereals off your TV screens. It’s about a larger trend of government mission creep, away from policing the illegal and improving the lives of all, towards a genuine Nanny State.

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Morgan Schondelmeier is Director of Operations at the Adam Smith Institute.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.