Government censorship -- no matter how well-intentioned -- can never be a good thing
My colleague Mark Wilson wrote an interesting article on Sunday about the futility of ISPs and governments trying to block pornography. If you’ve been following the news you’ll know the UK government intends to make accessing adult content on the internet "opt in". That's perfectly legal adult content by the way -- not just the nasty stuff.
Mark also worried about where such a move could lead, saying, "In filtering out porn, how could I be sure that whoever is doing the filtering is not also blocking access to other things, be it through a sense of morality, or by simply miscategorizing something?" Which, it turns out, could be truer than he knew.
In the comments under Mark’s story, Bruce Fraser said "this entire article is based on misinformation, presupposition and creating fear", adding, "the proposal is about blocking pornography, not taking away human rights. By invoking the 'freedom' language, Mr. Wilson is tugging on our heartstrings, suggesting that this is just the beginning of something much more sinister".
Sadly, if it was just about pornography, then that would be one thing, but it could indeed be the beginning of something much more sinister.
In a blog post titled "Sleepwalking into censorship", digital freedom campaigner the Open Rights Group claims that the "porn" block will extend into other areas -- automatically preventing access to yet more legal (if questionable) material.
According to the group, based on "current mobile configurations and broad indications from ISPs", the proposed parental controls will also pre-select options to ban access to:
- Violent material
- Extremist and terrorist related content
- Anorexia and eating disorder websites
- Suicide related websites
- Web forums
- Esoteric material
- Web blocking circumvention tools
What's actually pre-selected will, ORG says, vary depending on your ISP.
How true this claim is, I personally don’t know. At this point, no one can say for certain what the block will cover, but the list suggested by ORG is reportedly based on those "used by mobile phone providers today". If the organization’s mock-up is fairly close to how the porn block will work, it will mean if you elect to not allow sexual content on your home computer then you will have to opt in to see the other categories included in the list. And I can’t see parents who say no to porn expressly saying yes to any of those other options. Suicide related websites? Definitely! Anorexia and eating disorder websites -- bring them on!
So suddenly, from not allowing pornography on your family computer, you’re saying no to a whole swathe of other content blocked by the judgment of someone you neither know nor should trust.
As an aside, if you have a teenage child who suffers from depression, and they kill themselves after having accessed a suicide related website that the block failed to cover -- can you sue the ISP and the government for failing in their role as self-appointed guardians of the internet? Because if they’re deciding what we can and can’t see online, are they not ultimately going to be liable if they fail to do their jobs? That’s called negligence, after all. Of course, that is just one of the many problems with the whole ill-thought out idea.
Perhaps even more pressing, once this system is in place, it will be easy for the government and coerced ISPs to add other pre-ticked boxes to the list. What else can they include that is illegal, or might be viewed as unwelcome activity by, say, big business lobbyists? Ah yes, why not block access to sites which contain links to (or information about) copyrighted material, to stop the "kids" getting their parents into trouble by downloading it. After all, no one is going to want to opt out of that one. Untick it -- "Are you sure you want to break the law and risk the police coming round to check for pirated content on your PC? Y/N".
Make no mistake, once UK-wide censorship of any kind is introduced, and made "opt out" we’re going to find ourselves on a very slippery slope and it likely won’t be a problem limited to the UK for very long.