The Men Who Open Your Mail

What we can learn from the porn filters of 1873

This is a story two men, much alike, who would seek to control the way we talk to one another, even in our most private moments.

The first is a young American man by the name of Anthony Comstock, who found his calling in the years following the Civil War. Comstock was besotted by the notion of Victorian Morality, and made it his life’s mission to rid the United States of the decay he saw it sinking into.

In 1873, Comstock founded the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. Here is their seal, which shows members of the society burning books while an offender is led away.

Despite his priggish sensibilities, Comstock was a shrewd political operator. With strong backing from church groups and his colleagues at the Young Men’s Christian Association, he lobbied Congress to clamp down on indecency. Within a year, he succeeded in adding a clause to the federal Post Office Act which made it a criminal offence to transmit “obscene, lewd, or lascivious” material through the service. Rather than apply for laws forbidding the ownership of such material, Comstock targeted the distribution channels. The law made it legal for a Postal Inspector to open private mail in hunting forbidden smut. And those responsible for enforcing this law were none other than the members of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, and most frequently, Anthony Comstock himself. In a matter of months, Comstock had given himself licence to monitor the written communications of the entire United States population.

Although Comstock is popularly remembered as the man rifling through packages on the mail train, at the height of its power the Society for the Suppression of Vice exercised its influence across much of communications sphere of his day. As well as mail items, the group aggressively monitored newsstands, bookstores, subscription services, and theatres, pursuing cases against authors, publishers, actors, playwrights and producers, even going so far to organise a raid of Everhard Baths, a famed gay haunt. Comstock boasted that he burned fifteen tons of books and four million pictures, as well as driving fifteen people to suicide.

One hundred and forty years later, and another moraliser has taken on the anti-vice mantle, this time in the shape of a young man named David Cameron. As Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Cameron campaigned against the distribution of obscene materials. This time, the focus was on a medium that Comstock could never have dreamed of: the internet. With support from a right wing press besotted by ‘family values’ — a carbon copy of Victorian Morality — Cameron pressed for greater restrictions on material distributed through the internet. Like his forbear, Cameron chose not to focus on those producing or possessing objectionable content, but those transmitting it. The Internet Service Providers are the Postal Service of their day, and under threat of expensive and onerous legislation, they were coerced into creating filters that would intercept and remove obscene content as it passed through their channels, like electronic Comstocks on the mail train.

Neither Cameron’s government nor the US legislature of Comstock’s day sought to define the indecent materials they were banning. Instead, they left it up to those enforcing the restrictions to decide what fell inside. It was Comstock’s Society that interpreted the law, and often their views were challenged by defendants in the courts. It wasn’t just pornography that Comstock hoped to suppress. As well as indecent materials, the 1873 Postal Act forbid using the mail service to deliver contraceptive devices and information on contraception and sexual health. A staunch opponent of the Women’s Suffrage movement, Comstock also used his powers to suppress activists, in particular Tennessee Celeste Claflin and her sister Victoria Claflin Woodhull, the first women in the USA to found a newspaper.

In the UK, it’s unclear who exactly decides what falls outside the boundaries of decency in Cameron’s filtered internet. Under the default filtering scheme, each ISP is tasked with coming up with its own technology for implementing the blocks. As well as these filters, some ISPs already provide existing “family safe” options that censor large swathes of the web. Some of these outsource the operation of their filters to third party companies. All of these build upon an existing blacklist drawn up by the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), a registered charity supported by donations from industry bodies. (The IWF was set up in large part by Clive Feather, the director of ISP Demon Internet, after Demon itself was threatened with a raid from the Metropolitan Police in 1996 for the publication of obscene material, in this case Usenet discussion groups on which paedophiles were trading child pornography. Once again, it was the communication channel, rather than the producers or consumers, that was targeted. Ironically, Demon Internet at the time lambasted the threat of a police raid as censorship by an unelected body).

Classes of material removed by these modern filters include not just pornography, but that pertaining to drugs, alcohol and tobacco, gambling, fashion, social networking and games. And just like in Comstock’s day, these filters remove information about sexual health services, even more effectively than they remove pornography. A BBC investigation this week discovered that filters employed by the major ISPs also blocked access to child protection services and addiction counselling.

Cameron has since announced that ISPs would have to build upon these ‘porn’ blocks, censoring political material under the banner of “extremism” — no doubt a charge that could have been applied to the Women’s Suffrage movement in its day. No one knows exactly how much material disappeared from the internet when these filters were implemented. The vanished content likely far surpasses the fifteen tons of books and four million images that Comstock erased. As with Comstock, arguments over the application of the filters are likely to be settled in court as playwrights, artists, authors, photographers, activists and others suffer the overreach of the judicious Packet Inspectors.

But there is a third chapter to this story, about another man, a young law student who greatly admired Anthony Comstock. His name was J. Edgar Hoover, and the world would remember him as the first and lifelong director of the organisation he helped create: the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

As head of the Bureau, Hoover was tasked with surveilling the population of the United States. By the end of his term, Hoover had become paramount to a chief of secret police, using his position to amass files on tens of thousands of Americans, including prominent political figures. Hoover became so powerful that not even US presidents Truman or Kennedy could remove him from office, for fear of the cost to themselves. Having attended Comstock’s lectures in his youth, Hoover realised that a licence to monitor the communications of an entire nation was the key to wielding tremendous influence over everyone in it.

A filtered internet is an internet whose users are under constant surveillance. Comstock and Cameron were able to install their morality checks because of a fundamental sleight of hand: they convinced people that communications services were not an extension of personal private interactions. Comstock pioneered was the idea that while in transit, a communication was no longer private, existing as it did in a public-owned service. Likewise, Cameron has been able to implement his filters by persuading us that the internet is a public space in which public standards of decency apply. This directly contradicts the reality of the postal service and the internet — that both are services which allow one user to request information from another user. The practise is more complex, especially online, with services aggregating content from multiple users in real time, and the capacity to accept content from unknown users, but most of the time, what you see on your screen is the content you admit.

The conceptualisation of the internet as a public space is one of the most insidious developments of the modern era. Not simply because it allows ideas of community standards to be applied by people who will never share a web forum with you. It is a dangerous idea because it makes it easy for the government to argue that everything you do online, from your social web posts to the metadata of your phone calls, has happened in a public sphere. This makes subpoenaing, collecting, and recording it less of an intrusion into your personal life, and more an observation of your public activity. The conceptualisation of the internet as a public space justifies surveillance by moralists like Comstock/Cameron and Machiavellians like Hoover.

So the point where we argue about the application of internet filters is one where the battle is already lost. Instead, we should be asking why the government thinks it has remit to apply standards of public decency to the private interactions of its citizens in the first place. Our behaviour online, like the content of our letters, ought to be regarded with the same level of privacy as the conversations in our bedrooms.