How serious is the problem of pornography on the internet? Important enough to be the central issue in a rally drawing more than 40,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews to a New York baseball stadium two weekends ago. The men (it was too difficult to segregate the women, as Haredi laws require), all dressed in black suits and white shirts, filled the benches to hear pep talks about the dangers and temptations of the internet, with exhortations to use it sparingly, and then, only with effective filters.

“We’ve been retreating for years—enough! Tonight we draw a line of demarcation in the sand, tonight we begin to fight back!” said Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman in his opening “powerhouse” speech, as reported by a (sceptical, Jewish) Tablet magazine. “If one sins on the Internet, he commits an aveira [sin]; if one separates from the community [by not installing a filter], he loses his share in olam haba [the world to come]!”

Next to this show of numbers and moral fervour the report of a group of British members of parliament about the protection of children online might seem rather tame. But it has generated its own kind of drama as advocates of stronger protective measures and anti-censorship forces argue over proposals to force (if necessary) internet service providers to filter content for porn before it goes out to subscribers. You could probably fill several football stadiums with Britons who are worried about the risks of the internet for their children — if only they had rabbis to tell them, under pain of eternal retribution, to come.

Except for child abuse imagery — which the UK internet industry has agreed to block since 1996 — British leaders in general, unlike the Jews at the New York event, do not attempt to deal with pornography as such. But there is enough community and expert concern about the effect of porn and other sexual material on children for David Cameron’s government to treat it as a political issue. One of his Conservative MPs, Claire Perry, chaired the cross-party group that produced last month the report of the Independent Parliamentary Inquiry into Online Child Protection. Its opening comments are worth quoting:

Since the early days of the World Wide Web, pornography has been one of the most widely available forms of internet content. Freedom from prying eyes, human imagination and zero barriers to entry have led to an explosion of pornographic creativity with every possible sexual act represented online including many that are deeply degrading, disturbing and violent. It is said that the whole history of human perversion is only a few clicks away. Unfortunately, our children, with their natural curiosity and superior technological skills are finding a viewing these images.

The group’s main finding is that the “opt out” filter systems for individual computers and devices such as tablets currently offered by Internet Service Providers benefit less than half of children in the UK. Consequently ISPs need to offer network level filtering whereby adult content will be blocked until customers “opt in”, a move that is not nearly as difficult as the industry makes out.

At present, six out of ten children in the UK can access the internet without device-level filters, and use of filters has actually declined 10 percentage points over the past three years. Parents are often less computer and internet savvy than their kids and they feel powerless in the face of rapid innovation. Many also surrender their power: in 2010, 61 per cent of 11- to 16-year-olds had access to the internet in their own rooms. Mobile phones could be playing a larger role in this, although the large phone companies mostly require age (18) verification to access porn.

Opting in has already been accepted in principle by the largest ISPs in Britain in the form of a system called Active Choice, to be rolled out by October this year. But this applies only to new customers and the companies are loath to extend it to their existing clients, even though higher level filtering is already standard in many commercial settings, schools and public Wi-Fi hubs, and the technology behind it is well advanced. The industry resistance to default blocking, says the Perry report, seems to be “ideological, not commercial”.

The ideology in question concerns free speech. The report itself begins by affirming the “core principles — almost religious tenets — of decentralisation and freedom” that underpin the internet and says it “would be anathema to see these principles compromised”. It says it would be “difficult and wrong to impose mandatory government censorship” of internet porn, but a network level opt-in system maintained by ISPs would preserve choice while giving children more protection.

To opponents — captains of the porn industry and cable TV companies included — it is still censorship. They don’t see why they should be responsible for anyone else’s children. In fact the great theme of those opposed to default filtering or ambivalent about it is the responsibility of parents. Reading their views it’s as though they have made a revolutionary discovery: children have parents who should be protecting them! Parents need to be educated about their role in this!

This is true, of course. Parents should make it their business to get the hang of filters, and go to the school information evenings about it if necessary; they should insist that there are no electronic devices in kids’ bedrooms; parents should bring up their children to have confidence in them so they can talk about bad stuff they run into; they should talk to their children about sex and prepare them, somehow, to keep their innocence in a pornified world…

And if sewage is getting into the town water supply they should ensure that they have an effective water filtering system in the house, because protecting their children’s physical health is all their job too. Isn’t it? If not, if it’s only reasonable that the town fix the water supply at source, why should the rules be so different when it comes to the mental health of children?

Furthermore, not everyone who wants to help parents deal with the problem of internet porn will be equally helpful. A record of oral evidence in the Perry report reveals an attitude among some that porn is a “rite of passage” for adolescents and that keeping them away from it only makes it more desirable. What kids need, to quote the lady from the Family Planning Association, is to have someone “contextualise” it for them — which seems to mean explaining how certain images and behaviour belong on porn sites or page 3 of the tabloids but not in real life — as part of “good quality sex and relationships education”. Somehow, one is not convinced.

Unfortunately, the anti-blockers don’t have to convince everybody; they only have to put up an argument backed by some kind of research that will give authorities an excuse to put the issue of protecting children aside. Crossing the Atlantic, we find dana boyd, described in a recent Slate article as an “academic and Microsoft researcher” (who writes her name without capitals) dismissing fears about kids and porn as a “moral panic”. She also believes that teenagers are not necessarily harmed by encountering porn; it all depends on the youngster and how well they have been prepared to deal with it. “The kids are all right,” she insists.

The research: She studied young adolescents involved in Chatroullet, a webcam conversation launched in 2009 where people talk to random strangers around the world. She reckons that when the teens did come across a flabby, bald middle-aged man … performing sexual acts their response was “Ew,” and they clicked past him. “It was the best abstinence-only education you can think of,” she joked to the interviewer. Uh, and how is this comparable to teens watching a hardcore porn film for hours on end?

Boyd (sorry, Microsoft just capitalised that) is right that young people need to be prepared to deal with porn if they run into it; she is even correct, as reported, that a parent needs “to create the kid who can handle the internet without you” and that “they can’t become that kid if you are watching them all the time” (as if any parent did). But by “dealing with porn” she does not mean running straight away from it. No, she means looking at it critically and “interrogating” it — “contextualising” it, perhaps. And her alternative to not being hovered over all the time by an anxious parent is for that parent to let them roam totally free on the net, free to take calculated risks with the content they encounter. This approach severely underestimates the power of imagery to stay in the mind and the well-documented addictiveness of porn. It also grossly overestimates the ability of the adolescent to manage “risk” and to resist the sexual drive when strong temptation and privacy are combined.

This week a 14-year-old boy appeared in the High Court in Edinburgh charged with raping and sexually assaulting a nine-year-old girl when he was only 12. His defence counsel said the boy at that age already had unfettered access to the internet and copied something he saw in a porn film. Pornography was discussed by first year students at secondary school, said the lawyer. “There is a real risk that young people of the current generation of teenagers are growing up with a skewed view of what sex is and sexual activity.”

It’s a tragic episode that makes the fulminations of the rabbis at Queens’ Citi Field against the internet begin to sound reasonable. As for the network filtering recommended by the British MPs, that is the least a society that calls itself civilised can do.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet