Robert Hampton

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22nd July 2013

Attack the Block

David Cameron has announced that ISPs will block online pornography by default. The “big four” ISPs (BT, TalkTalk, Sky and Virgin) have all signed up voluntarily to the plan, which will see users asked to tick a box to confirm that they want the “Torrent of Filth” (© Daily Mail) to continue to flow freely.

A lot of people are unhappy at this – Virgin Media’s Twitter feed is already overrun with people demanding continued unfettered access to porn.

Won't someone think of the children?!

A typical pro-censorship campaigner

It’s incredibly difficult to argue against this plan, as pro-blocking advocates invariably start shrieking “think of the children!” as soon as anyone dares to question them. So let me say right now that no, children should not be looking at porn. I would argue, though, that is chiefly the parents’ responsibility to prevent this, by supervising their internet access and computer use. Judging by the number of “my 6-year-old ran up a £9,632 bill on an iPhone game!” stories in the press recently, some are not doing so.

I would also argue that adults’ freedom to fap is just as important – and when pictures of naked women are available across the newsagent’s counter courtesy of the Sun and the Daily Star, it’s hard to take seriously any claims that children need to be protected.

Telegraph blogger Mic Wright thinks that the plan is technologically illiterate. He’s absolutely right, but this point has reportedly already been made to Cameron by the ISPs, Google and others – see Rory Cellan-Jones’s reports on the subject. It seems that Cameron simply won’t listen.

If you want more, Paul Bernal, Lecturer in Information Technology, Intellectual Property and Media Law at the University of East Anglia Law School has written a useful post: 10 questions about Cameron’s ‘new’ porn-blocking. I have some questions of my own, reproduced below.

1. Why has David Cameron ignored his Government’s own consulation?

Last year the Government consulted widely on parental internet controls. Responses came in from Internet users, ISPs and technical experts. The message was clear. This quote comes direct from the Department for Education’s consultation response:

There was no great appetite among parents for the introduction of default filtering of the internet by their ISP: only 35 percent of the parents who responded favoured that approach.

The reasons given by the respondents were all sensible: parents believe it is their responsibility to protect children; blocking could give a false sense of security; there is a risk of being over-censorious. The Government, which had previously indicated it wanted “default-on” blocking, backed away.

The following morning the Daily Mail carried an apoplectic front page accusing David Cameron of betraying the nation’s children. Within a few days, Cameron had performed one of his famous U-turns and the Mail boasted of “victory” as he reversed course entirely.

Did Cameron change his mind because of the Daily Mail‘s hysteria? Perhaps he saw it as a “quick win”, a way to curry favour with Middle England, which was seriously disillusioned with his leadership at the time. It is worrying that the Mail holds such sway over our elected(ish) leader.

2. Who decides what gets blocked and why?

Is there going to be some giant Internet judgment panel, with a group of people gazing at web sites all day long, carefully pondering whether they should go into the “porn” or “not porn” box? Or is it going to be rather more half-arsed and arbitrary than that?

We already have real-world experience of filtering in action, as most mobile phone companies have adult content filters in place. As well as blocking porn, they often also block gambling, alcohol and other categories of site deemed unsuitable for children. More seriously, there have been cases of users being denied access to perfectly acceptable web sites. In 2010, T-Mobile customers complained that the company was blocking any gay-related web site, even those which contained no offensive content. This included news web sites, sexual health information, and sites offering support and advice for kids coming to terms with their sexuality.

Only last week, Liverpool Pride was blocked by TalkTalk as “adult content” – again, there is no “porn” on the site whatsover.

There is no clearly defined procedure to get these blocks reviewed and it can often take some time to sort out. Imagine if a small business, reliant on online sales for revenue, found itself wrongly blocked. Not only will it lose trade (possibly for weeks at a time), it could also suffer reputational damage from people seeing its web site address described as “pornographic”.

3. Will users be stigmatised for “opting out” of the filters?

So you’ve contacted your ISP to tell them “no thanks” to filtering. Maybe you want to look at some naughty pictures; maybe you simply object to your internet service being filtered; maybe (as described above) a site you want to access has been misidentified as porn.

Your ISP will have to maintain records of who has and hasn’t opted out of filtering. Will anyone else have access to those records? Will there be a list of “registered porn users” available to the authorities to inspect? Will curtain-twitching neighbours whisper to each other, “I hear Mr Smith down the road has… opted-out“?

Next time there is a grisly murder, will the Mail gleefully report that the suspect was a registered porn user?

4. Is there a risk of “mission creep”?

Now that the technology is in place to block adult content, it could easily be expanded to other categories of web site as well. We already have cases of ISPs being forced to block copyright-infringing web sites. Could other blocks be on the cards? Wikileaks regularly posts sensitive material to embarrass Governments the world over – will it suddenly find itself blocked as “adult content”? The US military recently prevented its soldiers from accessing the Guardian web site following the paper’s Edward Snowden revelations – could the Government suddenly decide to restrict access to other web sites it deems “unsuitable”?

There are many more questions to be asked. Hopefully the position will become clearer as the ISPs actually start implementing the filters. In the meantime, the Open Rights Group is all over this topic.

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One Response
  1. Comment by Anthony
    23rd July 2013 at 12:18 am

    Todays politicians have realised the simple fact that the public very rarely want to hear the truth. Newspapers have been doing this for years run a story true or not and even if you have to correct it later or run the opposite angle very few people remember. Look at countless daily mail cancer stories- no facts yet majority of people believe what they are first told as it fits with their world view. No one holds them to account. The Tories have realised this big time and so constantly crow to the newspapers- something must be done and yet never do anything. I have watched Jeremy Hunt for the last year or so constantly attack the NHS (which he is responsible for) yet he never suggests any solution just something must be done- he is far more successful then Lansley because there is nothing but entirely plausible soundbites to back him up or hold hime to account with, I was astounded last week to see him stand up to announce the Keogh report and say thousands have died- even though the first page of that report (and Robert Francis) states that using the statistics in that way is wrong even reckless. So Cameron will say something needs to be done, and he will say it again and again unless it is something he wants done (like say benefits), eventually with enough pressure you might force him to actually do something (look at EU referendum) but probably not (when is that referendum Dave?) and certainly not before the next election which is all that really matters.