Early in 2013 the Prime Minister announced another blunderous and slightly sinister moral crusade which aims to get all internet service providers to block access to certain websites until the users opt-out. The government says that the main objective is to curtail access to child pornography. Great, crack down on child pornography and give paedophiles nowhere to access their obscene images! Who could argue with that? Nobody, if that’s all these porn filters were doing. But they aren’t. These service provider-level porn filters go way beyond blocking illegal images of children. Under the guise of protecting the “innocence of our children”, David Cameron is leading a public effort to stamp out child pornography and children’s access to pornography, and in private, an effort to stamp out much, much more.
Pornography (child and legal) is just one topic in a long list of content that will be subject to automatic censorship by ISPs. Among the list of content deemed automatically “unacceptable” for the people of Britain are topics such as “extremist related material”, “eating-disorder related material”, “web forums”, “suicide related content”, “web-blocking circumvention tools”, (in other words, stuff that allows you to bypass the porn filter without calling up Sky and asking them to unblock hardcore porn for you), and the infamously vague term “esoteric material”.
You might think that parents have the right to restrict online access when it comes to their children, and you may even say that it’s a parent’s right to stop their children using the internet altogether. You’d be right – there’s nothing illegal about preventing your children from looking at content you deem undesirable, and if I had children I certainly wouldn’t want them looking at hardcore pornography. But the question of it being legal to prevent your children from looking at “esoteric material” doesn’t really matter. The real question is, is it the right thing to do? Two sources – New Statesman and the BBC, have already reported that some benign websites are falling prey to the new censorship rules. The BBC reports that TalkTalk currently blocks Reducing The Risk, a website to help victims of domestic abuse, and lists the Edinburgh Women’s Rape Centre as “pornographic”, subjecting it to an automatic censor, while New Statesman reports that BT gives parents the option to block that which relates to “respect for the gay and lesbian lifestyle”. BT have since reworded that specific restriction, but they haven’t removed it. Perhaps most frightening of all, as Adrian Short has reported, O2 gives parents the option to block access to websites such as Childline and Samaritans. These filters are only in their infancy but already they are having dangerous side-effects on the children they’re meant to protect, and that danger will not go away since the blocks are run by computers. The internet is far too big a place for a team of even a million people to go through websites one-by-one and deem them “acceptable” or “unacceptable” – it must be left to computers, and computers are stupid.
The internet may be the first place young people go to look at pornography, but it’s also the first place they go when they’re in need of help. Blocking content that relates to self-harm and eating disorders does not stop people from being encouraged to do those things, it leaves them without the means to overcome them. Young people hardly ever talk to their parents, teachers, friends or even counsellors about these things – they talk to the internet. What guarantees do we have that these flawed computer censors will only block websites that advocate suicide or eating-disorders? You may argue that the opt-out service isn’t an obstacle because responsible parents will simply lift the filters that stop people from getting the online help they need. The problem with that is that some parents aren’t responsible in that way – just think what kind of parents could benefit from blocking Childline. In any case, no legislation to ensure that the censorship will remain voluntary exists, and the government has been silent on the specifics of what will be blocked under each category once the nationwide blocks come into effect.
You may also argue that the examples of support websites being blocked are just bumps on the road towards a perfect system which will protect children from harmful content. That sort of computer system could take years to develop to an adequate standard, but if you take this argument, I will simply remind you that TalkTalk’s censorship software has been exported to a Chinese company called Huwei which reviews and considers websites for censorship. How long should we be expected to wait until private Chinese companies get it right?
Ever since people in the Western world have gained concrete civil liberties, they have slowly been chipped away at by governments and private corporations. The internet is the last stronghold of a free and engaged society where people can search for what they want and say what they want within the confines of the law. Cameron may pretend that these porn filters simply enforce the law – he may even believe it – but he’s wrong. Child pornography is already blocked by search engines and ISPs alike, so to introduce automatic censors of suicide-related websites and claim that the purpose is to curtail child pornography just doesn’t make sense. The two have absolutely nothing to do with each other. These censorship rules are a danger to children who use the internet as a life-line, and a worrying precedent to set. I am not fond of the slippery-slope way of thinking, but between wiping out a decade’s worth of Conservative party speeches from their website and threatening the free press, I cannot help wondering if strict internet censorship is just another step in an ever-present Western trend to restrict the flow of free information – free information that is not only essential for an informed and engaged population, but for a government that can be held to account.