Internet Censorship In The UK – Why It Won’t Work
I’m not a parent. I’ve not had the experience of creating a tiny version of myself and bringing it into the world. I’ve never experienced what it’s like to take responsibility for a tiny, innocent baby and then bring them up as best you know how. But the fundamental concept of parenthood isn’t lost on me. You have a child, and you love it and you keep it from harm with the aim of creating a happy, productive adult.
It is for this reason why I can understand the motives behind David ‘webcameron‘ Cameron’s proposed mandatory, ISP level filtering of adult material. I really do. I can understand why parents would be enthusiastic about it. Porn can be pretty damn unsavory. Indeed, we’re only starting to understand the effects of pornography on the sexual development of young people.
And yet I’m completely opposed to Cameron’s Internet filtering proposals. Proposals that will not protect children from seeing sexually explicit material. Proposals that will seriously undermine the Internet’s ability to be a free forum for discourse and debate. Proposals that fundamentally threaten the UK’s status as a beacon for freedom and democracy.
When I was a high-school student, I fondly remember how the school computers were locked down tighter than the lid on a ketchup bottle. There was a rigorous system of filtering that made goofing-off with a Miniclip game almost impossible.
And yet, I was always able to circumvent whatever restrictions that were in place and unblock webpages . Initially, I used a web based proxy from Peacefire. I’d get the latest ones emailed to me, so that I was always one step ahead of the WebSense filters that my school used.
And then later on when they stopped working, I would find other more ingenious ways of getting past the filters. One involved using a Java applet from Opera which emulated a cell phone running the Opera Mini web browser. As all traffic was being funneled through Opera’s compression servers in Norway, I could look at whatever I wanted without incurring the ire of the school.
If I was motivated enough, I found that there was always a way to circumvent whatever restrictions were in place. Teenagers are like that. Resourceful.
If Hadrian’s Firewall (or the Great Firewall Of Cameron) becomes an actual thing, then you’ll soon find that your progeny will swiftly work out how to bypass it. The problem then lies in what happens should they depart the safe world of the search-engine indexed Internet. What happens if someone at school tells your child how to surf anonymously with Tor ?
Tor is primarily a a tool for giving those living in despotic regimes free access to the internet. In addition to providing free, uncensored Internet, it allows for the free, anonymous publishing of materia l that is generally prohibited. Tor is also incredibly difficult to police. There is some incredibly unsavory stuff on there. Even the most Internet unfriendly governments such as China have failed to control it effectively.
It is at that point where it becomes almost impossible to monitor what your child is doing online, and it becomes incredibly difficult to have discussions about the content they are consuming. It becomes a lot harder to explain to your child that what they viewed online isn’t representative of normal, loving, healthy relationships. Cameron’s proposals would not make viewing pornography impossible, but rather thrust the consumption of it into a very dark and unpleasant place. This cannot be a good thing.
Perhaps what is most troubling about this filter is that the user has to actively opt-out of it. From a privacy perspective, this creates some serious privacy concerns.
Lets suppose you are a teacher. Suppose you are a religious minister. Suppose you are a Member of Parliament. Suppose you wish to consume adult material on your computer. You ring up your ISP and ask for your connection to be uncensored. There is then a record of this stored upon the hard drive of a third party.
Now lets suppose that the list got leaked. Imagine if someone decided to plot on a map the names and addresses of everyone who is on the list, as happened in 2009 with the leak of the membership list of the far-right British National Party until it was taken down with a court order. Imagine going into work and nobody making eye contact with you. Imagine hearing the sniggers of your colleagues as you walk to your desk. Imagine feeling the pit of your stomach dropping as you are called into your boss’ office.
It’s not a fun thought, is it? And yet, it’s entirely feasible. An unhappy fact of our modern, digitized life is that the people who we entrust with our private data sometimes get things wrong. It happened with Facebook, AOL and LinkedIn. It could easily happen at your ISP.
Categories of Blocked Sites
Worryingly, we know very little about what this proposed filtering would look like. We know that smut is forbidden. No surprises there. Circumvention websites are out too. My colleagues at MakeUseOf have discussed at length VPNs , Tor and proxies in the past. Will MakeUseOf be blocked?
Reddit and Twitter (and most other user-generated content websites) have photos that are decidedly NSFW on them too. Will Reddit be blocked?
‘Esoteric Websites’ are another category of websites that will be blocked by Talk Talk (one of the biggest ISPs in the UK). I don’t know what an esoteric website is. It’s vague enough to mean a great many things. So, what exactly will be blocked?
I don’t know the answer to any of these questions. Neither do you. The lack of information that has been released to the public is incredibly worrying.
Also troubling is the lack of discussion of a process for unblocking websites that have been incorrectly labelled as inappropriate. False positives are immensely common on web filtering systems. The Open Rights Group has done some amazing research on this subject.
If my personal website is blocked, what recourse do I have? Can I expect a speedy resolution? Do I have a right to appeal a decision that I feel is not in my favor? Will there be a third party ombudsman who I can complain? These are all questions that need to be answered, and have not yet been to any satisfactory manner.
The Loss of Soft Power
Perhaps the most dismaying facet of these proposals is that it compromises the manner in which Britain is seen internationally. In the December/January 2013 edition of Monocle magazine, the 2012 Soft Power Survey was unveiled. Britain was given the title of ‘Soft Power Superpower’ and the number one position on the survey, even beating all of Scandinavia, the United States and France.
This means that Britain has cultivated a reputation for openness, fairness and excellence and is therefore in a position to use that in international affairs. These proposals attack this position to its core.
By mandating that all home internet connections are censored by default, we join a very unenviable club indeed. We are no longer in a position where we can condemn in no uncertain terms the censorship prevalent in China, Iran and Syria. We lose the moral high ground and we betray those who live in authoritarian countries who are fighting for their freedom.
Even from a purely economical perspective, this proposal is madness. Small ISPs will have to shoulder the cost of upgrading their systems to have to deal with the burden of filtering all internet connections in real time. It’s reasonable to assume that consumers will have to take on some of this cost, meaning that you can expect your internet bill to get a bit more expensive. This is at a time when Britain is experiencing some of the worst austerity and poverty seen since the days of Margaret Thatcher.
Consumers can also expect to see their internet connections get even slower. As each DNS query has to be compared against a blacklist, you can expect websites to take longer and longer to load. Britain already has some of the slowest internet speeds in Europe.
These proposals are even more surprising when you look at them in the context of how in recent years the UK has been plugging its tech-startup friendly credentials. Faster than you can say ‘I call app Britain’, government grants and low-interest loans have abounded for fledgling code shops. The UK really wants as many digital entrepreneurs as possible to forsake the sunny skies of Silicon Valley and move over here.
But really, who would want to set up shop in a country where your service can be arbitrarily blocked? Where the branding which you have painstakingly cultivated can be crushed by the simple phrase ‘Site blocked – Category Pornography’?
I’m not a parent. If I was, I’d want my child to grow up in a country where freedom abounds and is a benchmark for the rest of the world. Where ideas can be openly discussed without fear of being shut down and where censorship is reviled. ‘Hadrian’s Firewall’ makes this impossible.
I understand the need to protect children from the masses of incredibly nasty stuff online. That’s a given. However, ISP level filtering simply isn’t the best answer to that. A better, more effective idea would be education. Talk to your children about what’s online. Educate them about what relationships are like and that porn is nothing close to being a realistic representation of them. Perhaps it might even be a good idea to adopt the Dutch model and talk about relationships from an early age in the classroom. Censorship is never the best solution answer.
Fortunately, avenues of making your voice heard exist as they should in a democracy. You can write to your MP and sign a petition. Making your opposition known is a great first step to stopping this awful, awful idea.
These proposals are incredibly emotive. People on both sides of the debate have strong feelings about the role of government when it comes to the internet. What do you think?