In 2002, by a vote of 6-3, the Supreme Court struck down the Child Pornography Prevention Act on the basis that it was overly broad in its prohibitions of “virtual” pornography. At issue were computer simulations of pedophilia – and which did not require the abuse of a child in order to produce.
Such images has been banned by the legislation on the basis that it could encourage predators and ultimately result in more crimes against children, but the Court found that even though the “sexual abuse of a child is a most serious crime and an act repugnant to the moral instincts of a decent people,” freed speech rights would be “turned upside down” if virtual child porn were outlawed.
The argument that consumers of such products would eventually tire of the fakery and go after the real thing was unpersuasive to Justice Kennedy, who wrote in the majority opinion that the “prospect of crime, however, by itself does not justify laws suppressing protected speech.” However, it’s not 2002 anymore. We’re moving well beyond speech.
A Canadian man recently ordered a robot from a Japanese company called Harumi Designs, and when at the airport he was arrested for possession of child pornography. That’s because the robot in question is designed both to provide sexual pleasure and to look like a child.
The man has pled not guilty, and Canadian courts are now considering the issue. In theory, the principles here are much the same as the ones that were weighed in the case against the virtual child pornography law.
No actual children are being harmed by the production of a robot. But looking at stimulated images of pedophilia is not nearly as unsettling as interacting with a piece of machinery that inhabits the real world in place of a child. Doesn’t that raise the standard of the prospect of crime that Justice Kennedy considered fifteen years ago?
These questions are not just practical, but cultural. The HBO series “Westworld,” for example, envisions all of the ethical challenges of navigating a world filled with artificial sex partners who are virtually indistinguishable from real humans. That may not be the world in which we live… yet..