Telecommunications

Opinion: Please, sir, may I have some porn? On David Cameron's proposed porn blocker

Opinion: Please, sir, may I ha...
British PM David Cameron plans to filter all adult content from all UK Internet connections by default.
British PM David Cameron plans to filter all adult content from all UK Internet connections by default.
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British PM David Cameron plans to filter all adult content from all UK Internet connections by default.
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British PM David Cameron plans to filter all adult content from all UK Internet connections by default.

On Monday, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced a sweeping censorship plan that would block internet users in the United Kingdom from accessing online pornography unless they specifically request otherwise. British ISPs will be obliged to contact each of their customers to ask whether they want their content filtered, and if no answer is forthcoming, the filter will be applied by default. Speaking of how "online pornography is corroding childhood," Cameron also proposed that search engines stop showing returns for child pornography – and in doing so demonstrated a lack of understanding of the medium.

In an impassioned speech, the British PM heralded plans to clean up the internet. Key parts of the plan include forcing British internet users to specifically request access to pornography, or else have such sites blocked. It was also proposed that search engines such as Google and Bing should filter search results so they can't be used to find child porn. Finally, Cameron proposes making it illegal to possess or view online porn that depicts simulated rape.

Let's take a quick look at some of the issues these initiatives will raise.

Who decides what is porn?

The UK government will have to be responsible for an internet blacklist. But how, for example, do you account for a general image server like imgur.com, which handles a vast amount of user-uploaded content, including, but certainly not limited to, porn? Does the entire domain get blocked? How many naked pictures have to show up on an internet forum before the whole site is blocked? The logistics are nightmarish.

Filters can be circumvented anyway

Anyone who has visited China recently, with that nation's internet censorship regime, might be surprised to learn how many Chinese people have profiles on the banned Facebook site. A proxy server is all you need to bring traffic in from censored areas on the internet, children Cameron hopes to protect from adult images may yet prove themselves to be experts in the art of porn-hunting in the same way they always have done. (And there may be an argument that parents that welcome the action may turn a blind eye to their children's online activities as a result – Ed.)

Most child pornography is already off the web

Online paedophiles, like drug dealers and gun runners, are well aware of the consequences of their activities online. In this age of universal surveillance, you'd be absolutely mad to search for illegal pornography online. No, the majority of illegal internet sites are now located on the much more anonymous dark net or deep net, parts of which which have specifically been designed to prevent censorship. And if curious kids are going to have to install a Tor browser and access the deep net to find regular porn, they're much more likely to run into the really nasty stuff.

The shaming of porn viewers

First, they came for the masturbators (and I am speaking out, for obvious reasons). The very fact that your web will effectively be censored unless you specifically ask your provider for access to porn raises all sorts of issues. For starters, the famous British gutter press will be delighted to reveal the names of famous people who have asked for the filter to be disabled. Somewhere, there will be a very useful list of people who are porn users, and one day it will leak. Not to mention inter-familial issues: family members who want access to porn will no longer be able to get it without consulting with their partners. It's not a problem for all, but a big problem for some.And finally, there's this ...

Government control of the internet is a powerful weapon against democracy

You only have to look as far as the Arab Spring to see how powerful a tool social media can be in organising protests and uprisings, - as well as how quickly governments can move to restrict access to sites like Twitter when they started to feel threatened. Since the Snowden leaks, it has become very clear that even "upstanding" Western governments like America's and Britain's have scant regard to civil liberties and constitutional due process when the vague and subjective notion of terrorism can be used as an excuse. This proposed legislation gives the UK government a simple process and mechanism by which entire domains can be blacked out: a mechanism potentially open to abuse.Since delivering the speech on Monday, Cameron has already admitted his plans are vague at present, but hinted that he may expand beyond porn to other sites he sees as harmful to children, including "perhaps self-harming sites."

It's hard to say whether Cameron's motives are those of a noble simpleton trying to cure children of indecent thoughts with a wave of a wand, or part of the broader effort of governments and corporations worldwide to get some semblance of control over the internet. Certainly the free flow of information has fundamentally changed the way media, government and citizenship works in the modern age, and pre-existing institutions are right to fear its capabilities.

No one is arguing that protecting children from pornography is not a worthy end, but the measures proposed demonstrate a misapprehension of the way the web and the inter work. And the rest of us stand to lose when those in power can decide what we can and can't read and watch.

I, for one, am going straight to the dodgy end of my bookmarks list to stage a personal protest, and I encourage the rest of you to do the same.

Source: The internet and pornography: Prime Minister calls for action

31 comments
Gildas Dubois
So North Korea has won?
Slowburn
It would do a lot more good to promote parents taking care of their children. No matter how noble the goal censorship is the wrong tool.
Snake Oil Baron
If Cameron has evidence that online pornography is corroding childhood he should stop concealing it. Such an important finding requires immediate public consideration and not disclosing this evidence of corrosion is disgraceful. Porn, like "violent" video game content, has been expanding in access and quantity for years now so showing a direct link to increased violent crime, sex crime, teen pregnancies and such should be fairly easy. Yet these indicators have remained stable or declined during this period of porn and gaming hyper-expansion. So we desperately need to see this new compelling evidence of Cameron's. Cough it up ya wanker.
Anne Ominous
According to the Victorians, nude statues corrupted children. Then it was French postcards and "adult" photographs. Oh! The poor children! Millions of children were "corrupted" by finding prints in Daddy's nightstand. Then it was Playboy. I am sure all the 70-somethings will love to learn how badly they were corrupted by that. (Of course there were worse things than Playboy at the time, but it was considered mainstream and cool at the time.) Then the VCR came along, and suddenly you could see actual pornographic movies at home. In... let's see... the 70s? So those who grew up with porn movies are now... running the governments! But wait! Even before VHS, here in the U.S. you could actually watch X-rated movies at some drive-in theaters! At least around here you could. So the 50-and-60-somethings are all corrupted too! Let's face it: the arguments of censors have never panned out. It's about control, nothing else. Sometimes it's control by powermongers, sometimes by people who are so afraid of their own shadow, they are honestly concerned that others will be corrupted by the mere sight of it. But their irrational fears have never translated into reality. So my message to them is: grow up, and lighten up. Your attempts at control do nothing but damage.
Daishi
Websites today use robots.txt to tell search engine crawlers what not to index on the website. Add robotx.txt to any website addresses to see what files and directories they disallow for search engine indexing. It takes a lot of work to keep an updated master list of all porn on the Internet but many porn sites are openly willing to identify themselves as porn. Why not augment robots.txt to allow websites to (optionally) categorize content for search engines crawlers so that it doesn't put the effort on a central authority? The robots.txt file would look like User-agent: * Disallow: /api Disallow: /login Sitemap: http://website.com/sitemap.xml Adult: / The advantage for porn sites for doing this is it would make it easier for people to find content when they are looking for porn and the advantage for people attempting to build parental control platforms or filter content from search results is that most/many adult websites would self police removing a lot of the required manual effort. There is no free speech issue because it's entirely optional so everybody wins.
Grunchy
The internet is full of porn and other extremely objectionable content, I'd prefer to block my children from seeing it. That is censorship and I fully support it. However I don't really have the tools to do that, except by surfing with my children, which is impractical. It's ridiculous to suggest it! The world is full of examples where we require the world be modified to make it safer for children. We have playground speed zones and child labor laws and age limits for cigarettes and dirty magazines. The internet is just another part of the world, what makes it exempt? NOTHING. I have used K9 freeware web blocker, but it is not perfect. Google, for all their billions of dollars, doesn't seem to do any rating for their web pages or youtube videos. I am happy to have a central agency perform blocking, that works for me. Everybody should be crystal clear on the concept, no adult will be giving up any freedoms in order to protect children. The internet has not been used responsibly, so it needs to be regulated. With freedom comes responsibility, collectively we haven't been responsible enough so therefore the freedom of use should be modified. Not curtailed - just modified.
Dave Parrack
@Grunchy When an individual is forced to actively state that they want to view porn then they are giving up a freedom. Does it not make more sense to have opt-in filters rather than opt-out filters? You still get to protect your children, but you won't be expecting every other adult in the country to also do the same. There's also the very real threat that this is just the first stage of censorship. It may be pornography right now, but it could be any number of other things in the future.
Kris Lee
@Grunchy go regulate your own Internet and leave other alone please. This is very well worded article and I have to agree with all of it. I would like to add another aspect. Sexuality is a very private matter and requiring people to announce it to the government is a very shameful intrusion of privacy. This is not tolerable in my opinion. If government would really care about people then it would provide tools to satisfy people like Grunchy that they could use in their households instead of applying a very questionable filtering to the whole nation. I must say that the situation of the human rights in the UK goes darker and darker.
Kong Ben
@Grunchy are you sure your children are not watching porn or not even seeing nude pics. the more restriction u keep the more they will search. After govt. applies the censor they will search and get to know about proxy server, then what will u do. And it is not hard to visit censored sites. my personal experience - after my dad started to sneak, i searched Google 'how to hide internet activity'. that's it.
Daishi
@Grunchy Schools and libraries are usually already filtered and for your home OpenDNS offers public DNS with free parental controls (FamilyShield). It really isn't the responsibility of the Government to filter the entire Internet based on age and it isn't even technically feasible.