Sounds naive, don’t it? But it’s an attitude that turns up all the time in the halls of governments everywhere… though whether it manifests as an earnestly-held belief or a sop to tabloid-fuelled public disapproval is (perhaps) an open question.
An example? Sex ads on Craigslist – O NOES! The adult services section of Craigslist has been under fire for a long time for allegedly enabling child trafficking, pimping and other unsavoury stuff to occur alongside the more legitimate personal ads between consenting persons of legal majority. Now, tired of being asked to jump through an ever-greater succession of hoops to ensure compliance with government guidelines, Craigslist has dropped the section permanently, and explained why in a public speech to the government:
“Those who formerly posted adult services ads on Craigslist will now advertise at countless other venues. It is our sincere hope that law enforcement and advocacy groups will find helpful partners there,” Powell said.
Ars Technica paraphrases their reasoning thusly:
Translation: we’re taking our ball and going home, and good luck with those other guys.
They’ll need more than luck; they’ve just created a whole new gap in the market for something that does the same as the Craigslist adult services section, but which does so in a more clandestine (and hence harder to police) manner. The subtext of the message: no matter how hard you try to help us find the few bad apples, we’ll still persecute you as enablers thereof; therefore, you may as well just not comply at all. So, rather than criminals misusing a legal service, you’ll have them using services run by other criminals. That doesn’t strike me as one to chalk up on the victory board.
Now, let me be clear: although someone’s bound to accuse me of it anyway, I’m not defending the rights of child traffickers or pimps or serial abusers to do the things they do. I’m trying to make a point about the ways we blame technology for problems that we’ve always had – problems which I suspect are actually far less prevalent than they were back in the mythical “good old days”.
I think everyone here would probably agree with me if I said “closing down Craigslist’s adult services section won’t stop child trafficking and pimping”; the people doing those things will find other ways to do them. So what if we just banned the internet entirely? After all, it enables all sorts of unsavoury and/or illegal behaviour, and it’s impossible to police it all effectively…
(Having very recently experienced the joys of airport security, I see a parallel with the War On Liquids In Baggage: one stupid failed terror plot that couldn’t ever have succeeded as intended, and suddenly you can’t take a bottle of water onto a plane with you. Or, to put it another way: we’re all restricted in the vain hope that the 0.1% (arbitrary guesstimate) of bad guys will be prevented from doing something nasty. Which parses for me as being very similar to “the only way to prevent people attacking our freedoms is to give them up before they have the chance”.)
The point I’m vaguely ambling towards here is this: I’m not sure we can ever hope to achieve a global society where no one ever does anything bad. But I am sure that chasing after the easily-found tools that wrongdoers take advantage of is at best futile, and at worst counter-productive (what we might paraphrase as the “driving it underground” argument). Doing so is, I suspect, another manifestation of Tofflerian future-shock, as discussed by Charlie Stross earlier in the week.
“But how else can we stop child trafficking, smart-arse?” I hear (some of) you say. Quite simply, I don’t know. But I reckon a step in the right direction would be to expend less resources on playing whack-a-mole with enabling technologies, and more on tracking down the people who use them.