The Government, doubtless with the most honourable of intentions – for they are, all of them, honourable men – has decided that pressure should be put upon the UK’s internet suppliers to filter out pornography, to protect the children of the nation, amidst concern that British children are becoming too sexualised, too young.
It’s, frankly, hard to know where to start with this absolutely insane, illiberal and impractical proposal. Let’s first start with the idea. Filtering of child porn works so well (in terms of stopping people seeing it; I doubt it does anything at all to stop actual child abuse), the theory goes. Some children see porn on the internet, and children seeing porn is a bad thing, so the filtering should be extended to all pornography, and anyone who wants to see porn should have to ‘opt in’ if they wish to have an uncensored (I’m sure the government would prefer the word “unfiltered”) internet connection.
“Think of the children”
The usual cry will go up, and in principle, I don’t think it’s a good thing for children to see porn. I think there are many things that they should be protected from. But a quick trip to the website of the Office for National Statistics shows that a mere 28% of households in the UK contain dependent children. So, for the sake of those, the other 72% are to have their internet access censored.
Wouldn’t it be better to ask parents to take some responsibility, by opting in to censorship? (And, of course, people from some countries may argue that being a little less hung up about sex isn’t necessarily a bad thing.)
There is one thing that seems pretty obvious to me. The sexualisation of children will not be stopped by controlling what those in childless households do in the privacy of their own homes.
Without playing down the horrors of some porn, it’s by no means the only influence on how children develop.
Far bigger, surely, is the impact of the high street, where big stores run by wealthy millionaires with an eye only to their bottom line peddle sexualised clothing ranges for children, urging them to be a “future trophy wife”.
What of the titillating pages of the tabloid press, that now resorts to such base tactics as “we have to print this filth to show you how bad it is,” alongside their steady trickle of ‘upskirt’ photos and critical articles about women who don’t look quite as thin or gorgeous as they’re supposed to?
There are many, many influences on children, and I honestly can’t see why the government should be censoring my internet connection, instead of cracking down on the far more visible influences, or urging parents to “opt in” – they’re your children, if you want them protected, you should take the lead, not demand that what I do is filtered and sanitised to protect children that I’ll never meet.
As with so many great government ideas, this one may well founder – or tangle itself in knots – when it comes to technical issues. Child porn sites aren’t huge in number (as a proportion of the internet as a whole). That can’t be said for other sexual content.
And just about every filtering scheme has its problems; the great Australian censorship project has filtered out material that’s not – according to the politicians – covered by its remit.
Anyone who works in a corporate office will have found some sites blocked by firewalls, often rather spottily. In one office, I can’t access a site that I run, which features no nudity, but I can happily access the Gaydar dating site, which has plenty.
There will – inevitably – be sites that are censored that should not be, and if the lists are operated by ISPs or private companies, it’s going to be very difficult to find out if you are on their list or not. We will have censorship without any transparency.
Some companies will have their businesses ruined, as they’re wrongly classified. And, as with any censorship system, mission creep is almost inevitable. Would Wikileaks suddenly find itself on the list? What about a site used to plan student protests?
When you start from the position that everyone’s net connection should be censored by default, you start down a very slippery slope.
And that’s before we consider the other aspects of this. Back in the 1990s, there was a proposal from some of the more illiberal elements within the Metropolitan Police that certain newsgroups be removed from internet service providers in the UK. The excuse used, as ever, was child pornography, and protecting the kiddies.
Aside from being fairly unworkable, the actual list contained plenty of newsgroups that were nothing to do with pornography, including gay discussion groups, and those for people interested in alternative sexual practises (such as SM or watersports). In short, it was a blanket attack on a far wider range of groups than people were led to believe.
Imagine a teenager, curious about their sexuality – gay or straight – trying to find out information online. Will that be censored too? Certainly, there have been plenty of incidences of sexual health information being blocked by some internet filtering packages.
Do we really want a situation where a teen living at home can’t find support from online gay groups? Or has to ask their parents if the internet can be uncensored, because there are things they have to look at?
And it’s not just there too; the system proposed means that internet providers will have to record whether or not their customers want an uncensored net or not. How secure will those records be? Will they be as safe from prying eyes as mobile phone bills are from tabloid newspapers?
When the default is “clean,” do we want a situation – and I’m sure it will happen sooner or later – where during a background check for a job, or a messy custody dispute, a slimy lawyer makes inferences about someone’s character because they’ve “opted in to pornography” ?
Illiberal, immoral and repulsive
I’m sure I could think of many other arguments why this proposal is wrong – besides the fact that it won’t work, it’s intrusive, it’s an invasion of people’s private lives, and it places the onus of protecting children not on their parents, but on everyone else.
For a party that professes not to believe in ‘big government,’ the idea that anyone who wants to look at legal adult material will have to register to do so is surely a clear example of the nannying that they so decried when they were the opposition.
To censor the internet for all households, because a few amongst the 28% with children do not want to take responsibility is not a solution.
It’s time to stop shroud-waving and screaming “think of the children.”
Won’t someone think of the adults?
Revert to Saved: UK Government to block porn
PC Pro: Internet censorship: the slippery slope starts here