Porn Purge Fails Miserably At Wikipedia Because This is the Internet

In 2010, Fox News published a series of articles "exposing" the pornographic images on Wikipedia. While most millennials were unsurprised by the revelation, many parents took a less blasé attitude about sexually explicit images existing in an online encyclopedia. The parents have valid reason to be concerned. Wikipedia is designed to quickly and easily link articles of different topics, enabling readers to shift among them quickly and easily. Most parents would be perturbed to know that a student researching frogs is three well-placed clicks away from a drawing of "a woman in stockings raising her skirt and urinating into the mouth of a man." Yet for the Wikimedia foundation, a nonprofit whose goal is to facilitate the open exchange of information, removing these images creates an interesting conundrum.

The clash between free speech and pornography is not new. Society has long been cautious about excluding obscene material from public discourse, even in forums designed to promote free speech. Usually, the impetus for these restrictions is the desire to uphold standards of societal decency and the need to protect children from vulgar and obscene material.

Historically there has been little argument over the righteousness of keeping kids away from porn. However, there has been a heated cultural debate over the nature of porn itself. In 1964, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart passed down the most famous bit of guidance on the subject. Instead of attempting to create an all encompassing legal definition of obscenity, he simply said, "I know it when I see it." His response was both completely true and totally worthless. When it comes to identifying obscene material, one man's 17th century French painting is another's mans orgy porn.

Given this long unsettled debate, it's easy to see how Wikipedia would have a difficult time regulating the imagery on its site. There simply is no effective means of removing all of the images that could possibly be defined as sexually obscene without majorly censoring educational materials, something Wikipedia is fundamentally against doing. Ultimately, this is why the board at the Wikimedia Foundation has decided not to implement a new image filter system to weed out unsavory photos.

In the end, the board's decision is completely in line with the fundamental principles of the organization. The very reason that censorship of sexually explicit content is controversial is why it is so important to protect. Human sexuality is a vast, complicated, and fascinating area of study. From an academic perspective, there is still so much to be analyzed and understood. More importantly however, sexuality is a necessary part of human life and experience. We do ourselves a disservice when we limit our means of self-examination and understanding.

Obviously this is not an answer for anxious parents concerned about the evils of the internet. But in the interest of fairness, if a parent is worried about porn on the web there are other websites that are higher priorities. 

How much do you trust the information in this article?

Caitlin Bancroft

is an abortion rights activist. She has a B.A. in Political Science from Saint Louis University and is pursuing her J.D. at The George Washington University Law School. When she's not yelling at her textbooks, she likes to swim and take part in the capital’s vibrant feminist scene. You can share her never-ceasing pro-choice outrage on libertytochoose.tumblr.com.

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