Time to opt out of web censorship

Four major UK internet service providers will be limiting customers’ access to the internet under a new scheme proposed by the Mothers’ Union and supported by the government.

Under the new scheme, customers of BT, Sky, TalkTalk and Virgin Media will have to “opt-in” to retain the full internet access that they enjoy at present.

The Guardian writes:

Customers who do not opt in to adult content will be unable to access pornographic websites.

But this characterisation of the system is wrong. This isn’t about pornography or “adult content”, whatever that may be.

The ISPs are setting up a filtering system that will give customers a choice between access to the whole internet and access to an arbitrary subset of the internet. Now choice sounds like a fine thing. People usually like choices. But what’s the choice on offer here?

It’s not a choice between “internet with porn” and “internet without porn”.

It’s a choice between the whole internet and only the sites that the ISP decides aren’t “adult content” at any point in time. Which sites exactly? They won’t say. Site blocking lists and content filtering algorithms are always kept secret and they can and will change at any time without notice.

So if you choose to opt out of the whole internet you literally won’t know what you’re missing. That might be a choice but it’s not an informed one.

Regardless of the opaqueness of the process and the misrepresentation of the actual choice on offer, some people will be happy to take the partial internet option. Why shouldn’t ISPs offer it?

Here’s why.

I do two main things on the internet.

As a freelance consultant I use the internet to earn a living. Not only do I design and write software for the internet, most of my business comes through the internet too. It’s my workshop and my shop window rolled into one.

I’m also an activist. I use the internet to advance the causes in which I believe. The internet is an essential tool for me to participate in the democratic process of debating and disputing ideas.

What the ISPs supporting web blocking are saying is that they can arbitrarily, at any time and without notifying their customers, block access to the parts of the internet on which I do business and advance my causes. The customers that have opted for web blocking (or not opted out of it) might not care hugely but I certainly do. It’s a restraint on my freedom of speech and freedom to trade. Web blocking undermines the default assumption of the internet: that anyone can post material, anyone can link to that material and anyone can follow the link and read it.

Even as someone who isn’t in the pornography or “adult content” business, this is a huge problem.

Recently I wrote about how Facebook and other major social networks threaten the open and independent web. This article wasn’t pornographic. It was a discussion of a technology policy issue.

Several websites picked up the discussion and wrote their own views on the issue. One was Eros Blog, a site that by its own description is about “sex blogging, gratuitous nudity, kinky sex [and] sundry sensuality”.

Eros Blog’s discussion of the social media issue isn’t pornographic. Yet it’s framed on a page that includes two nude paintings and several links to sites that are either pornography or discussing adult sexual issues.

The ISPs web blocking filters will almost certainly block access to Eros Blog and take the post about my social media views with it. There will be one less place on the web where people can encounter my ideas and other people’s perspectives on them. Not my porn ideas. Not my adult content ideas. My ideas about technology and how to run the web.

The idea that you can build a “porn” blocking system without this kind of collateral damage is fanciful. Once you start switching off the lights on whole sections of the web there’s no way of knowing which words and ideas will disappear, not least for the customers who will never be given the option to find out what’s been removed.

My message to the Mothers’ Union is very simple. If you don’t want to see porn or “adult content” on the internet, don’t look at it. If you don’t want your children to see it, bring them up to share your values. You already do? Then you’ve already got the most sophisticated and effective system possible. Not only does it give you and your children freedom from seeing things you don’t want to see, it also preserves my freedom to speak to anyone who might want to hear what I’ve got to say.

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  1. I was thinking exactly along these lines on hearing this news; my immediate thought was, if you don’t want to , don’t look at it.
    I have used the internet for my work most days for more than a decade. I have never come across porn unintentionally (or intentionally).

  2. Now sounds like this is not the story we’ve been led to believe. Some devious briefing maybe? (Closing the web in this way is probably illegal anyway.)

    That aside, filtering has always been a problem and will probably never get it right because most filters require intervention to create white lists.

    We tag our site through ICRA. But, I’ve got to say I have no idea how/if it works and whether it’s worth it. Controlling the web in this way is unlikely to work. Which means going the “closed web” route – ISP based, as in the old AOL/Compuserve model or proprietorial like Facebook.

  3. On the face of it, we – customers, citizens, individuals will still be permitted to opt-in (or is it opt-out?) for a freer web.

    But this ignores the fact that many people use the web as a daily work tool, and their employer may subscribe to a commercially run web filtering company. Decisions on which sites to block are made by the companies which run the software.

    This spurious “safer” and “cleaner” internet access means staff are incapable of viewing emails containing shocking and upsetting words without fainting away in shock. Words which of course are almost never heard. Except in films, plays, evening TV programs, songs, conversations in pubs, in the street, etc.

    It also means that photos with large and possibly “flesh-coloured” areas may be “quarantined”. Even if they are actually of a brick wall.

    Long lists of social media sites are often blocked. This includes Facebook, YouTube and Flickr. In the borough where I live, library staff have had to use their own home computers to access and maintain the Library’s official social media pages.

    Transport for London staff have been blocked from viewing my photos and very short videos showing problems in bus lanes.

    Former Stasi members must be emerald with envy.