Reply to Slashdot about my report to the FBI
On April 7, I posted the text of a report I made to the FBI to the EDTECH mailing list, in which I stated that, in my opinion, the Wikimedia Foundation may knowingly have posted “child pornography,” by which I meant “obscene visual representations of the sexual abuse of children.” In short, the Wikimedia Commons “Category:Pedophilia” page hosted images with realistic and disturbing drawings of child molestation. The Register reported on this and it snowballed from there. Among other venues, it was discussed on Slashdot, where I posted the following reply. I decided to repost it here permanently.
I have added a more recent reply.
Larry Sanger here–let me clarify a few things.
First of all, what very few of the commenters (at least the first commenters) noticed was that the statute I cited, 18 U.S.C. §1466A, has the following title: “Obscene visual representations of the sexual abuse of children.” It specifically states: “Any person who, in a circumstance described in subsection (d), knowingly produces, distributes, receives, or possesses with intent to distribute, a visual depiction of any kind, including a drawing, cartoon, sculpture, or painting, that…”
That’s drawings, cartoons, sculptures, and paintings. “Visual depictions of any kind.” Many people who criticized my message to the FBI really seem to have a problem with the law, which I find interesting.
Anyway, I now realize with regret that “child pornography” was probably the wrong word to use. I didn’t realize that it would be so misleading. I thought that “obscene visual representations of the sexual abuse of children” (the title of the statute) was just what we mean when we say “child pornography.” It didn’t occur to me until afterward that many people restrict “child pornography” to mean photographs of real children. If I had realized this sooner, I would have used “depictions of child sexual abuse” instead.
So, why did I report Wikimedia to the FBI? First some background. I am broadly a libertarian, but I am also a sincere moralist (as opposed to a cynical amoralist). Libertarianism and moralism are not–of course–contradictory. Being a libertarian, I think we have the right to do a lot of things, including a lot of things that broadly coarsen society; that’s the price we pay for freedom. But, just as the law provides for, I do draw one line when it comes to photographs, or even merely realistic depictions, of child sexual abuse. Most sane libertarians recognize that some speech should be restricted by the force of law–the hackneyed examples are shouting “fire” in a crowded theater, perjury, and libel. But for me, depictions of child sexual abuse are another. I respect the opinion of those who have a principled disagreement with me when it comes to depictions of child sexual abuse. But pretending that it’s just obvious, even for libertarians, that we have a right to publish such depictions is simply wrong, in my opinion.
Regarding my motives, yes, I thought I was doing my civic duty, one that I didn’t really want to do, but which I felt I ought to do. Partly this was because the statute in question required me to make the report if I thought the statute applied (and it seems to me it does–those drawings sure look like obscene visual representations of the sexual abuse of children to me). But partly also it was because I think that this sort of thing–including some pictures of children being out-and-out raped–is completely wrong, and should not be allowed in a civilized society. Call this censorship if you like, but I don’t really think you have a constitutional right to publish and consume realistic drawings of child rape and molestation.
But what outcome am I aiming at? Contrary to the insinuations of some, I have no interest in trying to get Wikimedia shut down; that would be unnecessary, and I doubt it would happen as a result of the violation of the statute. But I think and hope it may cause pressure on Wikimedia from law enforcement, politicians, and the general public to eliminate this sort of content. I also hope that Wikimedia will be persuaded, or if necessary forced, to label its “adult” content as such in a consistent and reliable way, so that it can be easily filtered by school system filters. This would be a win-win, because then Wikipedia would be used in more schools–something I don’t at all oppose, except for all the grossly inappropriate material for school children–and, when used in schools, children would be less likely to find content that their parents and teachers regard as grossly inappropriate for their age.
I know that in our cynical world, a lot of people will have trouble believing that my motives and aims as stated are sincere. Many people have said that I am motivated by a desire to get my projects in the news. In fact, in posting about my message to the FBI on EDTECH, I had no conviction that it would aid my projects. Actually, I worried that it might damage them, for exactly the reasons so many Slashdotters are howling now: leveling accusations against a popular project is a highly unpopular thing to do. But I’m afraid (and again, some will have trouble believing this, but I don’t care) I am “old school” on this sort of thing. When it comes to doing what is right, I often say “Damn the consequences.” This is why I am not very popular, and never have been; I must seem totally tone-deaf socially speaking, because I frequently find myself obligated to do and say unpopular things. I take my inspiration from Socrates. To the sort of people who think this claimed, alleged, supposed idealism is obviously false, or stupid, or terminally naive, there is little persuasive that I can say, because they live in a completely different world than mine. I’m sure all of the things I’ve been saying now about my motives will just confirm their opinion of me that I’m just a jerk, an authoritarian, or whatever else comes to mind. C’est la vie.
A lot of people shrieked with indignation that I mentioned my qualifications and–horrors–my websites. Conflict of interest! But they omitted to say where I mentioned this, which was grossly misleading on their part. The context of the statement was: it was in the first paragraph of a message to the FBI. I stated those things so that they understood exactly who I was, what qualifications I had to post the tip, and–believe it or not–what conflicts of interest I might have, should they find those to be relevant. If they want to disregard what I say because I have started a newer project competing with the project I am reporting, I want to make it easy for them to do so and move on to other pressing government business. I did not write the message with public consumption in mind; I posted it on EDTECH only as an afterthought, to underscore a point I had made in that forum. It only occurred to me later that this might be misconstrued as a plug for my own sites. Only later did I realize that I should not have quoted that part of the letter at all.
Those of you who think that I have a “conflict of interest” might reflect that with this move I have if anything completely burned the last of my bridges to working in the mainstream (deeply libertarian) world of Web 2.0. That is something I did realize. After this, I am sure I have permanently ruined my chances of getting a job (if I had wanted one) or getting funding for a successful for-profit in Silicon Valley. I know I will probably get a reputation of being a fraud who will say anything for a little publicity, or (much worse) a self-styled moralist who is in favor of censorship. Neither of these things is true, but I know it is the reputation I will probably have among that crowd. Well, you see, that’s the price you pay for living honestly in the world: you do what you must, even if you wished you didn’t have to, and you let the chips fall where they may. In the end, you have to trust that you will be rewarded in other ways, if only in having a relatively clear conscience.
So, sure, I know that our (pathetic) cynicism is such that many people will be unable to believe the above; they will think I am merely trying to appear noble, and they will mock the stupidity of it, because everyone is cynical and cool and maximally tolerant of sexual proclivities these days, and “noble” motives no longer exist, so any pretense to having such motives will be mocked or discarded out of hand. Oh well–that’s a pity for me.
Still, I hope I will have gotten the public to consider the issue. As to my career, well, let’s just say that I am now interested in the education sector, and in this sector, there aren’t so many people who think we have a constitutional right to view drawings of child molestation.
I have just one last comment, in response to a few Slashdot comments. Some of those comments were written by people who sound like complete creeps to me, people I would not trust anywhere near my little boy. Here is an example, and not the only one: “why should anyone care if someone masturbates to an image of a drawn child? If that gets his/her kicks so that the person can be a normal productive member of society, all’s good, or at least should be good – no child is ever harmed, and the person has taken care of his/her urges.” I find this chilling. But maybe even more chilling is that Slashdot rated this “Score: 5, Interesting.” Interesting–sure, I’ll grant it’s that. But its high rating is chilling because it indicates that one of the most influential sectors of industry today, the geek sector in control of the most massive media production system in history, as represented by Slashdot, is steadfastly non-judgmental when it comes to someone who all but admits that he gets his “kicks” by masturbating to an image of a drawn child. It’s that attitude that explains why Category:Pedophilia and its contents exists on Wikimedia Commons. Such people should not be making policy for the seventh most popular website in the world.
I suspect the people who make such grotesque remarks (and not all the critical comments are this grotesque) are mostly sick puppies who grew up with little moral guidance, who believe that virtually all desires are brute facts that cannot be criticized and [must be] always respected. They vainly imagine themselves to be very clever, but they have very little in the way of actual wisdom. These people will be utterly mortified by their youthful remarks when they actually have children of their own. But then of course there are the tiny number of some real perverts–let’s call a spade a spade–who might be older, are probably childless, and who are actually confident in defending sexual relations with children. They actually have the temerity to pretend that this is the next cutting-edge frontier of the broader movement toward civil rights and equality, and that those who disagree with them must be stupid, knuckle-dragging conservatives. These people are simply tangled in their own web of rationalizations for behavior and inclinations that, on my view, are simply evil. (And, yes, I did notice that some Slashdotters mocked the notion that child sexual molestation was “evil.”) I feel no desire whatsoever to dignify such people in any way at all, and I could not care less what they have to say about me. I can only hope that the rest of society is not so far gone in the way of moral relativism, or pseudo-tolerance, or whatever you want to call it, that they feel they must tolerate the advocates of free sexual relations between adults and children.
I don’t want to end on that note, because I really doubt that most of the people who have objected publicly to my position are, as I described them, “sick puppies” and pedophilia activists. Actually, I think most of them are libertarians, most of whom probably again don’t have children, and who are probably disgusted (as well they should be) by depictions of child sexual abuse. Despite our disagreement on the philosophical issue of where to draw the line regarding free expression, I have some sympathy and affection for these sort of people, who are taking a principled stand, but one that is, I feel, nonetheless wrong.
About the author
I call myself an "Internet Knowledge Organizer." I started Wikipedia.org, Citizendium.org, and WatchKnowLearn.org, and ReadingBear.org. I write about education and the Internet from a broadly philosophical point of view.