Aficionados of high-technology—from computers to iPods—have already learned to offer their gratitude, grudgingly or gladly, to American porn merchants. It is clear from even a cursory examination of technological progress over the last 50 years that the demand for adult content has driven advances in computing, communications, commerce, and consumer electronics.
It would not be far off base to say that every soccer mom watching a new Blu Ray DVD of a PG-rated movie owes a debt to Larry Flynt and Ron Jeremy for making X-rated ones. America owes a great debt to the porn industry for the 21st century’s media-rich, high-speed, always-on, 800-channel, hyper-individualistic lifestyle. Of this there is little doubt, and the story has (finally) gotten out.
Yet there is a much more serious issue facing our nation of plugged-in individuals, one that until recently never got quite the amount of press accorded the latest PlayStation or Hollywood blockbuster. The fact is that in the new era of terror-paranoia and government overreaction, the adult industry is, again, found with the vanguard, in the trenches, on the front lines.
That was then, this is now
Writing years ago on the controversial website Infowars.net—which has rightly been castigated multiple times for irresponsible, reactionary rumormongering—columnist Steve Watson stated that the U.S. government, like all the others in the world, used “a neverending multiplication of methods of covertly gathering information on everything you do.”
Ridiculed and roundly condemned, not just by liberal media but Establishment conservatives and neocons, as well, today Watson’s statement appears in various formulations on the front pages of America’s major newspapers and magazines. The stories of warrantless spying and phone-record fishing make a mockery of the Obama administration’s vaunted claims of transparency and integrity, and are bringing privacy, censorship, and free speech issues once again to the fore.
From video cameras monitoring public and private property to e-mail filtering and the recording of phone calls, the assault on privacy—yes, right here in the U.S. of A., not just Vladimir Putin’s KGB-controlled Russia—has gained momentum daily following 9/11. As the Bush administration began to transform the nation into a garrison state under constant surveillance, most people still preferred to talk about movies and smart phones. When Obama took over, the major change was that the conversations were updated to iPads and Facebook.
While the government continues to limit free expression, concentrating “around the edges” where there is less social resistance and fewer sympathetic victims, producers of unapproved messages—whether it’s Occupy Wall Street, ANSWER, the Tea Party, the anti-war movement, or you, perhaps—continue the fight in the only way: Keep breathing, keep giving people the words and music and images they want, support the free flow of speech and images, and do everything possible to live with maximum personal freedom and responsibility.
It is important to note that it was an all-American combination of personal liberty, entrepreneurialism, and profit motive—plus a reliance on “spontaneous order” over coercion—and definitely not a desire to be high-tech leaders or philosophical freedom fighters, that led porn producers to the forefront of technology and a leading role in the free speech/anti-censorhip/privacy movement writ large. Over the years they kept developing new, faster, cheaper, better ways of providing products to law-abiding people who wanted those products. But when the crunch came—suppression of free speech that would certainly not end with X-rated sexual material—they did not shrink from the battle.
A coalition coalesces
Surveillance of what you do is one side of the coin. The flip side of the government-control coin is the attempt to limit, restrict, define, and ultimately deny you the right to do what you want, even in the privacy of your own home with consenting adults. One of the major fronts in the so-called “culture war” has always been adult entertainment, from magazines and movies to the Internet.
Perhaps the first national group to support the cause of “free speech for porn” was the Adult Film Association of America (AFAA), formed in 1969. With the advent of video, the AFAA renamed itself the Adult Film and Video Association of America (AFVAA), but its role as a “trade association” of the adult entertainment industry was taken over by the Free Speech Coalition (FSC), founded in 1991. (The FSC acknowledges the AFAA as an ancestor.)
Through the 1990s the FSC fought against numerous government attacks on producers and retailers of adult products. But as the years went by, it became clear that their efforts were not beneficial merely, or even primarily, to pornographers; the FSC and the porn business had teamed up with the American Civil Liberties Union as high-profile defenders of constitutional rights in the U.S., a fact of which John and Jane Public are not sufficiently aware.
When the FSC challenged section 2556(8) of the Child Pornography Prevention Act (CPPA) in 1999—which banned depictions that “appear to be” minors or “convey the impression” of being minors—the battle was framed in much of the media as pederasts against “decent people.” It was almost as if there were no underlying legal, ethical, or constitutional issues at all.
Yet, when striking down the provisions, the Supreme Court made it clear that laws of exactly this sort were once created and used against political dissenters in America. The statute imposed an impermissible prior restraint on protected speech and meant, essentially, that the government could try to restrict anything if enough people felt that it might harm others.
The court victory, of course, belongs to all of the American people, not just those who want to buy the XXX-rated porn classic, Corruption. Unfortunately, there were (and still are) not enough voices making these connections for people and, thus, the anti-porn crusades continue. In fact, they have increased.
Alberto was worse than Ashcroft
When FBI supervisors in Miami met with newly appointed U.S. Attorney Alex Acosta in late August of 2005, they wondered about the top enforcement priority of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Would it be Al-Qaeda and terrorism? Organized crime and narcotics? Immigration or public corruption?
To their dismay, the agents discovered that the top prosecutorial priority was to be obscenity—and not “kiddie porn,” but material featuring consenting adults. The Justice Department’s goal of prosecuting adult porn angered federal and local law enforcement officials, as well as government prosecutors. The Miami FBI agents protested that there were far more pressing issues in high-crime South Florida, such as terrorism and international crime mobs.
It doesn’t take a paranoid with a persecution complex to connect some of these dots. The fact is, say privacy and free speech advocates, by waging war on marginalized members of society governments refine techniques later applied to the general population. Adolf Hitler’s potent tools of subjugation, the Gestapo and the SS, had their roots in small cadres of true believers in a private fraternal organization; Stalin’s henchmen, who in 1938 would purge an entire class of professional soldiers from the officer corps, got their start by harassing homosexuals, Bohemians, and other unpopular members of Soviet society.
And so, governments turn their “spies and goons,” in the parlance of the “infowarriors,” loose on the social sectors they consider to have the least public support—today, purveyors and consumers of sexually explicit materials—and build popular support with political and social grandstanding. And the tools are getting better all the time. Remember, too, that following Obama’s election, high-profile porn prosecutions (like John Stagliano’s) continued and new ones were initiated. It is a thoroughly bipartisan abuse of power.
Major phone companies, with the exception of Qwest, surrendered customer records to the National Security Agency starting (at least) in mid-2006. But records from AT&T and others represent only one of many fertile sources of personal data that the government is currently “mining”—for evidence, it claims, of terrorist plots and other national security threats.
The Departments of Justice, State, and Homeland Security all spend scores of millions of dollars each year on commercial databases of Americans’ finances, phone calls, medical data and personal information, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Amazingly, the agencies’ contractors don’t even guarantee the data’s accuracy, the GAO found.
Buying commercially collected data allows the government to circumvent the Privacy Act of 1974, which requires disclosure of what they are doing with it. But the law applies only when the government itself is collecting the data. And there is no requirement whatsoever that the agencies divulge what specific individuals may be targeted within such “broad brush” collection.
Evidence that turns up in cases against pornographers today need not result from narrow warrants; prosecutors have access to incredible caches of communications data from which they can cull potentially incriminating evidence. Just ask Extreme Associates, John Stagliano, and other targets of government porn prosecution what has turned up in their discovery hearings.
Even the notion of defending one’s data, with encryption software for instance, is under attack. Recent developments, such as the early 2013 admission by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) that it couldn’t break Apple’s iMessage encryption, show that the technology has advanced to a level that law enforcement now knows is not “crackable” by even the strongest supercomputers.
As a result, the government wants unfettered “back door” access with “keys” that unlock encrypted data. They want all new technologies to be designed with government snooping in mind, and fitted with appropriate access points and data-collection tools. But as these battles drag on through the courts, another front in the infowars has opened up right at your house, at the point your computer links to the chaotic, undisciplined (read, “free”) world of the Internet.
Google (once) stood alone (once)
Google, Inc. faced off against the U.S. Department of Justice in federal court in 2008 as it fought then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ demand that it produce users’ “search query” data as part of a separate case about online pornography’s “threat to children.” Finally, it seemed, a single case would expose the government’s real reason for “fighting porn”—the desire to gain access to everyone’s computer records, not just those of porn fans.
Google’s decision to fight the government contrasted with the reactions of rival Internet companies Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft Corp., which complied after receiving vague assurances that no specific customer data was involved. The Justice Department’s demand raised concerns over how far customers could trust the big Internet firms to protect their privacy from government snooping. Since 2008, of course, this trend has only worsened.
“[The government was] invading the privacy of Google as a business operation,” said Bruce Fein, a former general counsel at the Federal Communications Commission under President Ronald Reagan, at the time. “It’s within Google’s rights to tell the government to ‘Get off my back.’” Other observers said the Google case showed that it is only a matter of time before the U.S. government will seek access to individual Internet records, just as federal agencies already do for library and medical records.
With events in early 2013 showing the extent to which warrantless spying has been going on against wide swaths of the citizenry—as well as politically motivated IRS actions, the AP phone records scandal, and other abuses of power—it is clear to honest observers that the election of President Barack Obama did nothing to fix these problems, and his administration has subsequently done much to exacerbate them. The ACLU, in fact, rates President Obama as low or lower than George Bush as regards civil liberties.
Defining freedom down
Whether from myopia or a self-preservation instinct, even Google, fighting against encroaching Big Brother in 2008, was more comfortable couching its case in terms of patent protection than civil rights; it opposed the government subpoena on the grounds it was being asked to reveal details about its market-leading search system. To mischaracterize the nature and possible effects of the government’s actions in this case was as irresponsible as it was politically expedient, which makes it both understandable and venal.
Although the judge in that case did limit the Justice Department’s data grab to 50,000 “random records,” not everyone joined Google’s attorneys in calling the decision a “victory” for privacy. And subsequent government record-grabs have been met with unfortunately inconsistent resistance by Google, other Internet firms, and phone companies. As Obama’s second term approaches its mid-point, the trends are not encouraging.
Information on you, your hard drive’s contents, and your web search for the latest porn parody release from Will Ryder could be in the hands of a government agent right now. Think it might be time to send that donation to the Free Speech Coalition, and maybe check out the libertarian candidates in the next election?