The chilling idiocy of Cameron’s “Good, Clean WiFi”

This morning’s Telegraph carries a story about David Cameron’s latest venture into the realms of internet censorship. Responding to pressure from a coalition of probably well meaning, though certainly technologically challenged, children’s organisations, Cameron is floating the idea of a porn block on public WiFi services.

Update: Also covered on the BBC News site.

This is because, while their parents can control what they do at home, they might roam free and access filth in a café, shopping mall, or somewhere else that WiFi access is provided. So, lest any children unsuspectingly access filth – or perhaps peer over someone else’s shoulder and see them accessing filth – it should not be allowed on public wifi services.

Effectively, then, what Cameron is calling for is censorship of the internet access provided by some access points. He calls it “Good, clean WiFi” as opposed, presumably, to bad, dirty wifi, on which people can look at anything they like.

There will be exceptions, apparently, for WiFi in places that children don’t go, like casinos. They’re not sure about hotels; those might have to be censored too, but no one seems entirely clear – perhaps because, like most government proposals to do with technology, this one is another steaming pile of rubbish that hasn’t been thought through yet, a little like the stupid ‘benefits cash card idea’ I wrote about not so long ago.

What’s wrong with it?

I’m sure there are plenty of people saying “that seems like a sensible idea,” so let’s just see the many different ways in which it falls down, shall we?

First, yet again, it’s censorship; I don’t believe in that, and I also don’t believe that censoring what I look at is going to make any kids any safe. I’ve covered this angle before – in particular the potential consequences of any ‘opt in to porn’ system.

Next, do these people realise how WiFi works? Radio waves don’t just stop dead at the edge of a building; they leak out. I know corners of Soho where I can loiter, instead of having to actually go into an office and make smalltalk with clients, and use their wifi to check something quickly. If some venues, like casinos, aren’t restricted, guess what? People can hang around them and use the wifi outside. I’m sure all those keen on child protection will agree that encouraging kids to hang around outside gambling dens will be much better.

Of course, you could insist WiFi is installed in such a way as to make sure that it’s not accessible outside the building. Great. So who’s going to check that? Are you now suggesting that we also employ Public Inspectors of WiFi, whose job will be to ensure that when someone has been permitted (by the good grace of the government!) to operate an uncensored WiFi network, it is only available within the specified area of their premises?

Really? Do we really want, as a “free society” led by a man who claims the state shouldn’t interfere, to be licensing and verifying WiFi access points?

It seems that some people presumably think we do – because otherwise, what are the alternatives? You could automatically block porn on all connections when someone tells you they will be offering public WiFi; and for that to work, you’ll have to require that everyone is asked what they will be doing with their internet connection when they buy it, and check to make sure they don’t change their mind later.

Will there be penalties for not doing so? Will there be a phone line to ring up and shop the café owner round the corner, because you think you saw something bad and dirty via their WiFi? Congratulations on your reinvention of the Stasi, if you think that’s a good idea.

And, of course, who’s going to define what venues can and can’t have uncensored internet? Take a coffee shop on Old Compton Street, heart of London’s gay community. It’s not an adults only venue, but you probably don’t get many children in there. It’s possible, yes, of course – but does that mean that the patrons of a coffee shop there should be forbidden from accessing a gay dating service on their smartphone, or from looking up information about sexual health?

Mission creep

There are, at least, two ways in which this deeply unsavoury idea will suffer from mission creep. The first is that, given the various ways in which, short of an all encompassing licensing or reporting regime for internet use, it won’t actually work. It will remain easy to set up a wifi service that is not filtered, and those will have to be policed.

And so, inevitably, there is likely to be pressure. “We can’t stop these WiFi points from being set up” will cry the campaigners. And they’ll raise the pressure to do what they’ve wanted all along – mandatory internet filtering across the whole UK, whether public WiFi or not. They may graciously allow an opt-in for filthy perverts like me who want to be able to see whatever they like online. It’s wrong, stupid, and ill-conceived.

The other issue is what counts as not “good, clean WiFi”? What sort of material will be filtered? I made allusion earlier to gay dating sites, and sexual health. As pointed out on the excellent Law and Sexuality blog, where I first read about this lunatic proposal, things are far from clear. An app like Grindr is – in accordance with app store policies – only allowed to have ‘safe’ images on it. But people can privately send each other all the explicit photos they like. So should that be blocked? Should the HardCell site, which talks to those who enjoy some less main stream sexual activities in frank terms, to promote safety and awareness, not be available? What about other sexual health resources for young people? Advice on coming out as a teenager? Support forums for people who have been abused?

Internet filtering very often has side effects, and often just those sorts of resources are blocked, even though the ostensible reason for the filtering is to stop porn. One of my own sites, which has no explicit imagery at all on it, is blocked by many filters, because its description includes gay and leather, as far as I can tell. No matter that it’s member’s only, and has no nudity. It’s blocked.

Update: Jules Matteson’s Tumblr shows the sort of thing that’s already blocked by public WiFi; now imagine you’re a teen struggling with sexuality, or wanting advice about pregnancy, and your parents have blocked this material at home. You can’t unlock mobile data without being over 18, you can’t ask your parents to do it for you, and you can’t use public WiFi. It’s enough to remind me of Section 28 – in fact, let’s call it that, as a stark reminder of the sort of people that this will affect, and the nasty history of the party proposing it. This is a chilling proposal, and its almost inevitable side effects mean that this is a new media version of Section 28.

Censorship has side effects; and once it’s in place, it’s also very easy to add extra things – like copyright infringement, or unsuitable political views. We should resist it strongly – both because it is a deeply unsavoury idea in a free democracy and because these proposals – as with so many others involving governments and IT – are stupid, ill thought out, and pretty much unworkable.

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