Last week we finished talking about President Obama, and his cunning plan to expand Internet access by letting entertainment companies cut you off any time they want to. Now we turn our gaze to former Governor Romney’s views on Internet Freedom.
Like our President, Romney also came out against SOPA after everybody else hated it. As we discussed in my article on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Romney likes trade agreements a big huggy bunch, so we can expect more treaties like the TPP under a Romney presidency. That’s where the similarities end.
For instance, our President along with Google and just about every organization that isn’t an Internet service provider, backs Net Neutrality. The idea that all links are created equal, that a link from this newspaper should be treated the same by ISPs as a link from The New York Times. Many of my conservative friends worry about Net Neutrality because it is overseen by the FCC, they worry that the FCC will censor the Internet. Romney won’t allow the FCC to do that; he wants to do it himself.
In 2007, Mitt Romney stated that he wanted to force computer companies to install expensive and ineffective filtering software on every computer. He wanted to overthrow the game industry’s rating system in favor of a government-controlled system. Mr. Romney also wanted to stop adults from accessing legal pornography on the Internet. Take a moment, and remember that then, as now, this is our small government candidate from the party that wants to get government off our backs.
Today in the Republican Party platform, we can see Mr. Romney’s views have not changed. Under “Making the Internet Family Friendly,” Republicans state “Current laws on on all forms of pornography and obscenity need to be vigorously enforced.” Lets look at how a future Romney administration might do that.
Presidents enforce Federal law, and thankfully most obscenity laws are at the state level. But Mitt only needs one. Thanks to our Secretary of Explaining Things, former President Bill Clinton, he has it. It all started with the Comstock Laws. These laws enshrined in 18 USC, Chapter 71 make it a felony to send obscene materials through the U.S. Mails. They have been used to censor classic works such as Ulysses by James Joyce, which was burned by U.S. Customs in 1933. Sometimes these laws are used in concert with state law to censor a book, as in the case of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. That work was prosecuted under a California state law, while books coming from the printer in the United Kingdom were seized and destroyed by U.S. Customs under Federal law. When President Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996 into law, section 507 of it applied the Comstock laws to the Internet. A conviction under these laws can be punished with up to five years in prison. To be fair, President Clinton declined to enforce these laws. President George W. Bush took the opposite course, and established the precedent.
In 2005 United States v. Extreme Associates, Attorney General Gonzales brought charges against video pornography company Extreme Associates for sending five videos through the United States Postal Service and posting six short video clips on their website. Extreme Associates initially challenged the law based on privacy rights, and the common sense idea that it should be legal to distribute something which is legal to own. The lower court agreed, but that decision was overturned on appeal by the Third Circuit who said that the law is perfectly Constitutional. Extreme Associates’s owners were sentenced to a year and a day in Federal prison. Mr. Romney has experience on this issue. As a member of the hotel chain Mariott’s board, he profited directly from the sale and distribution of pornography. Mariott provided in-room pornographic movies for a fee during Romney’s time on the board of directors. According to The Economist these films “earned Mariott $175 per room per year.” Criticizing pornography after profiting from it shows impressive moral agility. Now he’s ready to go after a hobby enjoyed by 183 million Americans.
Video games are increasingly transmitted and played over the Internet on services like Steam or Origin. So 18 USC 71 applies to them. They generally don’t touch on sexuality, though there are exceptions. Fox caused a stir when a guest compared the PG-13 rated character romance scenes in Mass Effect to pornographic films. It was later revealed she had not played the game. Games like Mass Effect 3, and Star Wars the Old Republic, include same sex romance options, something the Republican Party as a whole and Mitt Romney are not fans of. Mitt might prefer that same sex couples be as absent from popular entertainment as they are from the institution of marriage. He might be tempted to use our laws to force the issue. Romney also seeks to restrict games based on violence. He feels the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, the private body that rates video games similar to the MPAA ratings on movies, does not do enough to protect children.
According to the Entertainment Software Association, the industry body for video games, the average gamer is 30 years old and the majority – 68% – of gamers are adults. Romney is perfectly comfortable censoring games based on a minority of gamers. He feels he knows what’s appropriate for that the 32% of players under the age of 18 better than their parents do. I remind you again, this is the candidate who has spent two elections speaking out against big government. He can prosecute game publishers under 18 USC Chapter 71 1461 which states that the law covers “Every obscene, lewd, lascivious, indecent, filthy or vile article, matter, thing, device or substance . . . The term ‘indecent,’ as used in this section includes matter of a character tending to incite arson, murder, or assassination.” That last bit is important, because that is exactly what critics of video game violence – including Mr. Romney – charge that video games do. Though they have failed to provide evidence for these charges, such as a direct link between video game violence and violence in the real world. To paraphrase George Carlin, he “wants to ban guns made of pixels, and keep the real ones!”
Video games aren’t alone – books, music, and film are also distributed over the Internet. It’s the wave of the future. Romney’s policy would threaten all of these art forms. Like President Clinton, President Obama has not enforced the Comstock laws. Children are still protected. Child pornographers have been prosecuted and put in prison. The few who abuse children over the Internet have also been dealt with. The vast majority of abuse against children is committed by a close friend or family member, a distinction ignored in the platform. Romney has invented an issue out of whole cloth, and is attempting to start a moral panic to gain votes.
Don’t let him do it. Stand up for yourself, but be polite. Tell him that you know better than him what kind of entertainment you prefer and that you like your Internet freedom. Here’s his Twitter, Facebook and email. Time to go to work.
We’re in the final weeks before this year’s election. I’ve heard a lot of grumbling about the media not covering minor party candidates – Gary Johnson, and Jill Stein for instance. I want to talk about them, and we’ll do that next in my next article.