Can the French really ban pro-thin websites?

by on April 16, 2008 · 16 comments

There are a lot of disturbing things out there on the Internet. I don’t think I need to provide an inventory. Occasionally, some of the more despicable sites (think pro-suicide sites or bomb-making sites) capture the attention of public policymakers and bans are proposed. It was only a matter of time, therefore, before “pro-ana” sites made the regulatory radar screen as they did this week when lawmakers in France proposed a measure, “aimed at fighting incitement to extreme thinness or anorexia.”

The pro-ana movement, which refers to people and websites that justify or glorify anorexia or an excessively “thin look” or lifestyle, came to my attention last year when an academic was interviewing me for a new book he was writing about online responsibility. He was asking me what I thought about the idea of liability being imposed on website developers who glorify potentially harmful lifestyles or activities. In other words, an “aiding and abetting” standard for hateful or “harmful” online speech. I expected our discussion to focus on the truly sick or stupid stuff out there—like the bomb-recipe nutjobs or the suicide fans—but, instead, the academic mentioned pro-ana sites, like House of Thin (which no longer seems to be around) and others. The danger of these sites is that they offer young girls, which seems to be the primary audience, very unhealthy advice about how they can use various techniques (fasting, vomiting, laxatives, etc) to become super-thin. Needless to say, that can lead to extreme weight loss and serious health disorders for these girls.

Should sites be banned, or held liable in some fashion, for the harm they cause? We could nitpick about whether of not pro-ana sites cause serious harm to girls, but let’s assume that they do cause some harm. Does that mean the site administrators should be held responsible for the actions of others who read those sites? The French law says “yes.” It would, according to Reuters:

impose penalties of two years plus a fine of 30,000 euros ($47,450) for “incitement to excessive thinness by publicizing of any kind.” The penalties would rise to three years in jail plus 45,000 euros fine in cases where a death was caused by anorexia. The bill was adopted by the lower house of parliament on Tuesday and must go before the Senate before it becomes law.

One response to such a measure will be that it will encounter significant enforcement challenges. Ironically, we’ve been here before; at least the French have. You will recall the famous Yahoo case regarding the sale or bartering of Nazi paraphernalia online. (For the definitive discussion of that case and the legal / enforcement issues it raised, see this piece I commissioned by my friend Bob Corn-Revere when I was still at Cato).

But I don’t want to talk about enforcement challenges or extraterritorial jurisdictional issues here, even though I think they are significant. Nor do I want to dwell on the free speech issues at hand, which are also numerous. Just to name one: If government can regulate sites that glorify “excessive thinness,” what about sites that potentially encourage the opposite by “glorifying” the consumption of fatty foods or sweets? Should “Crispy on the Outside,” which is produced by our own Jerry Brito, qualify for regulation or liability if someone gets excessive cholesterol-clogged arteries after eating too much of what that site recommends? Jerry… perhaps you need to get a lawyer!

Or what about a website that featured a mix of pro-ana and anti-ana viewpoints but that still contained a lot of the same “harmful” information that the strictly pro-ana sites featured. Should it be banned? I could go on all day with similar examples.

But what I instead want to focus on here is this: Wouldn’t we better off engaging these pro-ana people and websites directly? That is, don’t ban them or drive them underground, but instead go directly to those sites ourselves and engage in a discussion about what most of us would regard as unhealthy lifestyles.

It certainly may be true that pro-ana sites encourage unhealthy, even harmful, lifestyles. But the problem is right there; it is out in the open for us to see and address through discussion, education, and opposing websites. As I have pointed out in my work on social networking sites, we may not like some of the things that others (especially youngsters) post online, but the one significant upside of it is that it highlights problems that used to be well out of our view. Indeed, in past generations, parents often warned their kids to behave themselves in public or else “it will go down on your permanent record.” It was largely just a scare tactic, because there really was no “permanent record” of the mundane activities of youth. Today, however—for better or for worse—the Internet is becoming “your permanent record.” No doubt, this raises some serious, long-term privacy concerns. But the one positive aspect of this is that it makes it easier for us to identify and address certain problems.

From what I have heard about pro-ana sites, all this is already happening to a limited degree. Apparently, some parents and even health professionals are intervening on these sites and trying to provide balanced viewpoints or warning girls of the potential downsides. And other sites have developed to counter and address the pro-ana movement. Moreover, part of the health education curricula in school can include discussions of eating disorders. Currently, most of the discussion has been about the opposite problem: obesity and a sedentary lifestyle. What we need to focus on, of course, is moderation and healthy lifestyle choices.

Education and open, informed discussion is the best answer here. I fear that by trying to regulate these sites, we simply drive the problem—and the discussion—underground.

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