Whether it be child pornography, music subject to copyright or a politically sensitive painting, banning or restricting content that is widely distributed online is often pure symbolic futility, as countries around the world have learned.
And that is one of the arguments the Goodman Gallery put to the Film and Publication Board this week as it fought to prevent the board from classifying The Spear, thereby restricting its distribution.
It would be capricious, advocate Matthew Welz told a board hearing, to ban the gallery from displaying the image on its websites while others continued to do so — including websites well outside the reach of South African law, such as Wikipedia.
Trying to impose an age restriction or content warning would be equally futile, he said, and had the added danger of limiting access to those rich enough to have credit cards because credit-card numbers were the only viable method of age restriction available to websites.
“If you click on a button that says you are older than 16, the only thing we know about you is that you clicked on a button saying ‘click here if you are older than 16’,” he said.
Various countries have tried to implement the only way, theoretically, to prevent their citizens from finding or stumbling across certain images: a national web filter. Their success has been marginal at best.
The “great firewall of China” attempts to block access to some foreign websites from within China by way of traditional filtering based on domain names and internet protocol addresses.
The sites blocked are typically either pornographic or critical of Chinese policies, although the scale of the task often overwhelms the system and blocked content slips through while innocuous sites are blocked. Simple technical workarounds or ways of bypassing the firewall also make most sites accessible to any suitably motivated citizen.
Amid protests that would eventually lead to the fall of the government, Egyptian authorities blocked access to Twitter and Facebook in early 2011 and for a short time tried to disconnect the Egyptian internet from the rest of the world. Internet service providers in other countries quickly established alternative means for users to achieve slower but unfiltered connections.
Iran uses a keyword-filtering system to attempt to prevent certain content from being accessible online. Internet service providers that do not comply with strict technical regulations for filtering are shut down. The state also maintains a website blacklist. The Iranian government is believed to be working towards a network that will be entirely closed off from the rest of the world.
The United Kingdom has considered various ways to protect internet users from inappropriate content. Among these is requiring internet service providers to block some websites by default and requiring customers to ask for exemption to access pornography. In 2001, following riots in some cities, the government mooted the idea of imposing limits on social media. None were implemented, however.
The US has tried or considered a wide range of measures to combat illegal pornography and the distribution of copyrighted music and movies online with relatively little impact on either. Arguably the most successful initiative was the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which allows copyright holders to issue take-down notices to websites that host material to which they hold the rights.
In 2012 the Stop Online Piracy Act (a Bill, despite the name) drew widespread protest, including a 24-hour blackout of the English-language version of Wikipedia. It sought, among other measures, to ban credit-card companies and advertisers from doing business with websites responsible for copyright infringement, regardless of whether those websites were hosted within the US.